Governments Wrestle with ‘Medical’ vs. ‘Recreational’ Pot

Is cannabis really an “essential” business? The food business obviously is. But the legal cannabis industry didn’t exist a few years ago, while gathering and making food—contrary to the popular cliché about prostitution—is the world’s oldest profession.

As state and local governments across the country have decided which business should be allowed to continue operating while most people are sheltering in place to avoid spreading the Covid-19 virus, the decisions are, naturally, often politically motivated. At the moment, cannabis has a lot of momentum behind it in the states where it is legal. Many politicians in those states have fully signed on as champions of the industry.

For many people, cannabis is an agent of relaxation or fun. The fact that “medical marijuana” is also legitimately a thing complicates matters greatly in states where “recreational” pot is legal. That has tended to diminish the difference between “medical” and “recreational” pot, since consumers no longer need to be formally designated as “patients” to obtain weed. So governments can’t practically distinguish between the two.

Some have tried, though.

A few weeks ago, the Santa Clara County Public Health Department announced on its website that only medical pot could be legally sold in-store or via curbside pickup, and that “recreational” pot would be delivery-only.

This was deeply confusing on a number of levels, but chiefly because now that pot is legal for all adults, who is to say what is “medical?” Panic ensued for several days. Cannabis dispensaries in San Jose—the only city in Santa Clara County where they are allowed—started scrambling to help their customers obtain medical ID cards.

Finally, it was clarified that the people who determine whether cannabis purchases are “medical” are the consumers themselves.

The laws that emanated from Proposition 64—which legalized cannabis for all adults—still distinguish between “medical” and “recreational,” and technically, it’s still the case that only medical sales are allowed in person or via curbside pickup in San Jose. But unless someone tells a budtender “I would like some recreational marijuana, please, for my recreational, partying needs,” anyone can still buy legally weed by presenting a driver’s license or other valid ID.

The San Jose cops, the regulatory authority in this matter, have clarified that they won’t force dispensaries to sell only to those with a medical card and a doctor’s note.

A representative of Airfield Supply, a big San Jose dispensary, told me earlier this month that it was helping customers obtain medical-marijuana IDs and that it was rushing to add capacity for making deliveries. Before that, the vast majority of its business was in-store. After the San Jose police and county officials clarified their positions, “all guests are now welcome to shop at Airfield,” said Mark Matulich, Airfield’s founder and CEO.

It remains “an evolving situation and we applaud efforts made by public health officials in Santa Clara County to juggle so many elements in the service of public good,” he said.

The dual nature of cannabis—it’s both a “vice” and a health elixir, and sometimes both at once—makes it hard to regulate in this way. But James Anthony, the Oakland-based cannabis lawyer who complained to Santa Clara County when the order was first issued, believes it doesn’t have to be.

“I think all cannabis is medical,” he said. “People use it to feel better, right?”

That’s true. Also true: Anthony’s observation that the way the industry is set up, there’s just no practical way to distinguish between “recreational” and “medical.” So if medical pot is legal, it’s all legal. Grocery stores and pharmacies have been deemed “essential businesses,” he noted, but “you can go into a CVS or a Safeway and buy booze.”

The stores are “essential” because they sell goods that are obviously essential, like food and pharmaceuticals. But you can also pick up a fifth of Jack Daniels while you’re in there. Or just the Jack, if you want. Liquor stores are also open—presumably because Fritos are considered food.

This demonstrates that cannabis’s long history of being legally recognized as “medical” is “critically important now,” Anthony said.

It might remain important depending on what happens over the next couple of weeks. The stay-at-home orders issued by six Bay Area counties in mid-March are now set to expire on May 31. Conrad Gregory, the president of the California Cannabis Industry Association’s board of directors and head of government relations at Harborside, the Oakland-headquartered dispensary chain that has an outlet in San Jose, would love to see additional clarity from Bay Area governments.

The situation in Santa Clara County is still confusing, Gregory said, but for now “we’ve reached a little bit of a steady state.”


  1. The ‘medical designation was put on cannabis almost 25 years ago in California as a workaround. In my view, the way things stand, there’s no much of anything ‘medical’ about it, or else Big Pharma would have had their tentacles in it already.

    We should just put aside our puritan ways, stop talking out of both sides of our mouth, and just put ‘recreational’ cannabis on the same footing as alcohol. For the medical aspects of cannabis, let it go the route of any other medication. Get a prescription and have it filled at the pharmacy, just like other ‘recreational’ medicines like ED treatments.

    This is one area that I’d agree with most repubs… the federal government would stand in the way of all this. Lots of so-called conservatives would just get their knickers in a bunch if asked to remove cannabis from the Schedule 1 list. I can see Mitch “The Turtle” McConnell clutching his pearls at the thought of it, even if his home state would stand to benefit by replacing tobacco farms with hemp and cannabis operations.

  2. Liquor stores are open because alcohol withdrawal is one of the only withdrawals that can kill you, Dan
    Gee, I sure wish SJ inside would make sure their journalists were educated before allowing them to publish their ignorance for the world to see.

    • Sorry you don’t like the reporters, but your argument doesn’t hold water on so many levels.

      Starting with, I don’t really care if people want to get stoned. It’s their business, but don’t drag me into their drama or money problems.

      According to the marijuana industry, weed is non-addictive, all natural and healthy. No one is addicted to weed and it does not cause lung cancer. Never has, never will. Their own words.

      Be very careful because history repeats itself. In the 1800’s a similar campaign touted a substance called cocaine as a cure all. Later radio active water was sold as a cure all in the 1920’s and 30’s. Pot (and now CBD) is just the next progression of quackery.

      While there are probably 100 people in Silicon Valley that actually medically benefit from pot, the rest of them are just pot heads. “I’m grieving my lost parakeet” is not a medical problem. Get some help snowflake, don’t get stoned.

      If you are so medically screwed up that you need to wake and bake just to be a normal person, you should be visiting your doctor on a regular basis and not self medicating/ self dosing at home.

      Liquor stores also sell food and house hold goods. In some case the corner liquor store is the only place within walking distance and people rely on that store when they can’t drive 5 miles to a Safeway. Assuming they have a car and are able to drive. Closing the corner liquor stores (not even big CVS) would adversely impact the poor, elderly and feeble. In contrast pot stores sell only pot and pot stuff.

      For the people in actual need, prescription drugs should come from a pharmacist and be covered by medical insurance. Medicine should not some random guy (or girl) in Humboldt with a few acres of land. Botanist (amateur or professional) are not pharmacists or doctors. Please don’t compare or confuse them.

      The reality is pot is just a crutch for the politicians to collect money and keep people stupid. i.e. more power for them. Stupid people don’t ask questions and just do what they are told. Fact – Sobriety makes people smarter.

      – Stay safe –

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