By Erika Smith
Last weekend, Jonatan Cvetko drove to a fire station in South L.A. and got vaccinated.
He’s not a senior citizen who is at particularly high risk of dying from COVID-19. Nor does he work at a hospital, spending his days and nights tending to critically ill patients on ventilators.
He does, however, own a cannabis shop. And as of last week, that alone makes Cvetko eligible to get his first dose right now — ahead of most teachers and cops in Los Angeles County, not to mention bus drivers and grocery store clerks. All he had to do was make an appointment online and bring along his work badge and paystub to show those on staff at the fire station just in case.
If that sounds crazy, I hear you.
I, too, had trouble understanding why the California Department of Public Health would vault tens of thousands of cannabis workers to the front of the eligibility line when the state’s most vulnerable residents can’t even get vaccinated because of supply shortages.
Just this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged that there aren’t enough doses to ensure every teacher is protected before schools reopen. And on Wednesday, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that L.A. would temporarily close five drive-through vaccination centers, including Dodger Stadium.
But as it turns out, there actually is a logical reason for prioritizing some cannabis workers for COVID-19 vaccines. You just may not like it.
Jerred Kiloh, president of the L.A.-based United Cannabis Business Assn. and owner of the Higher Path dispensary in Sherman Oaks, summed it up this way: Cannabis is medicine, so cannabis workers are healthcare workers.
“After 26 years of calling it medical marijuana, how can you now disenfranchise what we’ve called medical and then tell us we’re not health workers or that we’re not providing medicine for people?” he said, his voice rising in indignation. “It’s slightly disingenuous to put a label on something and then take it away whenever it’s convenient for you as a government.”
California really backed itself into a corner on this one — particularly Newsom, given that he was the main proponent of legalizing the sale of cannabis for adult use with Proposition 64 and came to office with strong backing from the industry.
Kiloh capitalized on those political and policy decisions of the past to lobby state officials into submission last month, arguing, in part, that the heavily taxed, heavily regulated industry deserved the help from a government that has taken it for granted.
His initial ask, and that of a separate coalition of marijuana businesses, was for everyone in the industry — from retail workers to growers to delivery drivers — to be included in the upcoming Phase 1B, Tier 1 of the state’s vaccine rollout plan. This is the group that includes food and agriculture workers, law enforcement and teachers, among other essential workers.
“Should outbreaks of the virus result in closure of our businesses,” Cvetko, who also is executive director of the United Cannabis Business Assn., wrote to Newsom in January, “then Californians will only have the option of obtaining their medicine from the massive and unregulated illicit market.”