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Cannabis Was the Quiet Hero of 2020

Americans may be divided right now, but they agree on one thing: Life is better with cannabis. Here's why.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Americans may be divided, but its citizens agree on one thing: Life is better with cannabis.

Olena Ruban | Getty Images

For proof, look no further than our most recent election. On November 4th, citizens in four diverse states voted to legalize cannabis for adult use. These wins reflected the will of a vast spectrum of the American populace, from fiercely red South Dakota to deep blue New Jersey to newly purple Arizona. Not a single race was particularly close, and most saw cannabis win in a landslide. Those despairing about America's future may take solace knowing a leafy green thread runs throughout our country.

Related: Everyone's Talking About How Well Marijuana Did In The Election, But Hemp Was A Winner, Too

Some telling numbers

Consider the following statistics: 

  • 70 percent of U.S. adults now consider smoking cannabis to be morally acceptable—a five-percentage-point uptick from the previous year (Gallop)

  • 91 percent of U.S. adults favor some form of sensible cannabis legalization (Pew Research Center)

  • 36 states and 4 U.S. territories now allow for the legal production and sale of medical cannabis (representing 269+ million U.S. citizens, ~82 percent of the country)  

  • 1-out-of-3 Americans will live in states that permit recreational cannabis sales by the end of 2021

  • 4-out-of-5 states that legalized cannabis received more votes on November 4th than both President Trump and President-elect Joe Biden (only in Montana did President Trump beat cannabis, and only by 2,566 votes).

Changing views

Of course, the idea that cannabis could be anything other than a polarizing issue would have been laughable just a few years ago. Many Americans still remember First Lady Nancy Reagan joining her husband on the White House sofa to offer a rare joint address to the nation. Her message then, as it remained for decades to come, was simple: ‘Just Say No to Drugs.’ For Nancy Reagan, there was “[no] middle ground.” When it came to drugs, America must be “unyielding… [and] inflexible.”

Thankfully, not everyone was convinced.

Just seven years after the Reagans left the White House, America’s most populous state decided ‘Just Say No’ needed an exception clause. On November 5th, 1996, California voters resoundingly passed Proposition 215, affording seriously ill residents the right to obtain and use cannabis for medical purposes. In doing so, California reintroduced mainstream America to cannabis as medicine.

I write ‘reintroduced’ because, for the vast majority of human history, the cannabis plant was unquestionably considered medicine. Five-thousand-year-old Chinese medical texts reference cannabis as an anesthetic. Ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls discuss cannabis suppositories as a treatment for hemorrhoids.

More recently, between 1850 and 1937, the venerable United States Pharmacopoeia included cannabis in its listings. At the time, physicians relied on cannabis to treat more than a hundred unique illnesses and diseases. Of course, this would end as cannabis became increasingly stigmatized in the 20th century. The story behind cannabis’ stigmatization, and eventual criminalization, has been widely documented. Like so much of marijuana's history, it largely boils down to racism and fear. I encourage readers to learn more. In the oft-quoted words of the philosopher George Santayana: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

In some important ways, America has been learning the lessons of the past. In 1996, California’s Proposition 215 planted a seed in the American psyche. Compassionate voters took notice and in 1998, Alaska, Oregon and Washington joined their sister state in legalizing medical cannabis. However, it would take another two decades before ‘Just Say No’ disappeared from the national lexicon. In 2018, America’s infamous D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) Program quietly removed the slogan from its literature. It seemed America was ready to ‘say yes’ to cannabis. 2020 proved the point.

Essential item

For many Americans, cannabis is required for quarantine. This year alone, Americans have purchased an estimated 18.9 billion dollars of medical cannabis, a 45 percent increase over the prior year! In the early days of the shutdown, cannabis stocks outperformed the crashing S. & P.  Lockdown restrictions led states across the country to declare the plant ‘essential.’ Pennsylvania listed medical cannabis dispensaries as “life-sustaining businesses.” Many Americans would agree.

New Jersey novelist, Tee Franklin, is one of them. Ms. Franklin was interviewed by the New York Times about her recent introduction to cannabis during a Summer covid spike: “My pain in five minutes went from a 9/10 to a 6/7. Those five minutes changed my entire life.” Ms. Franklin has been disabled for the last seven years, following a serious car accident. She credits cannabis with her newfound mobility: “I’m not the Flash, but I got a little pep in my step, and that’s all from marijuana. It helps with depression, anxiety, stress... there is no way on God’s green Earth that I would be able to deal with the coronavirus and the protests of George Floyd and just me being a Black woman, period. There’s no way.”

Ms. Franklin is not alone. America is united in a shared struggle. Savings have been pillaged, credit cards maxed out. Small businesses continue to close and unemployment rates remain sky-high. Even worse, hundreds of thousands of families are in mourning, having lost a loved one to COVID-19. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows Americans experiencing three times as many anxiety symptoms and four times as many depressive symptoms as they were at the same time last year. Experts have even coined a new term to describe the toll COVID-19 related stress is taking on our sleep: ‘Coronasomnia’.

Thankfully, for Ms. Franklin and millions of others, life is better with cannabis. For millennia, the cannabis plant has brought light and levity to incredibly dark and painful days. In present-day America, it illuminates our shared humanity. We may be a fractured country, but a green leafy thread unites us. Let us use it to help weave our society back together. 

Reasons to celebrate cannabis in 2020

  1. MORE freedom. Last week, the House of Representatives passed the MORE Act, aka, H.R. 3884—the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019. The Act contains a lot of historic provisions including REMOVING cannabis from the government’s list of controlled substances, retroactive expungement of cannabis-related crimes, and a federal pot sales tax that would be used to fund a lot of important programs.  

  2. More jobs. Cannabis is the fastest growing industry in the country. Recent estimates put the number of US cannabis jobs at approximately 300,000. That’s a 15 percent increase over 2019, with no ceiling in sight. According to a recent jobs report by Leafly, Massachusetts now has more legal cannabis workers than cosmetologists and hair stylists combined.  Nevada has as many cannabis workers as bartenders and Illinois has twice as many cannabis workers as meat packers. Even better, cannabis jobs are expected to double by 2024! Cannabis will likely play a crucial role in America’s post-COVID economic recovery.

  3. More global acceptance. On Wednesday, December 3rd, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) accepted a World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The move will likely lead to the rescheduling of cannabis in many member countries.

  4. More access. 2020 concludes with legal cannabis available to more Americans than ever before. 82% of US citizens now have access to state-regulated medical cannabis programs.