New Zealand's referendum last month to legalize recreational marijuana use was the first time a country put the controversial topic to a popular vote. Initial results point to a narrow defeat of the measure, which would still leave Uruguay and Canada as the only countries to fully legalize cannabis at a national level.

Still, in normal times, such a vote would have made worldwide headlines. But with COVID-19 dominating the news, it's mostly wafted under the radar.

• And yet ... In other countries, the pandemic is itself leading to an increase in demand, creating new (and old) questions about the burgeoning cannabis industry as well as the question of its legalization.

Locked down and lighting up: Recreational use of cannabis is banned in all European countries, though some have legalized it for medical use. But according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, cannabis is Europe's most commonly used illicit drug, with an estimated 24.7 million users in 2019.

• The EMCDDA issued a report this summer that found that during the lockdown, occasional cannabis users had reduced their consumption but frequent users had increased it, citing reasons such as "boredom" and "anxiety."

• During the lockdown, users faced a shortage as the availability of marijuana "significantly decreased" because of the pandemic, leading to an increase of home growing of cannabis as well an increase in online searches for terms relating to domestic cultivation in various European countries.

A worker harvests cannabis in the U.S. — Photo: Jim West/ZUMA

In Germany, where the use of marijuana has been legal for treating diseases since 2017, the number of patients applying for cannabis-based treatments has been growing steadily.

• Total sales increased to €120 million in 2019, compared with €73 million the previous year, and more than 50 companies now own an import permit, Deutsche Welle reports.

• And while the country relies mostly on imports from the Netherlands and Canada, it is now looking towards ensuring domestic supply via its first local cannabis harvest at the end of 2020 — a crucial question especially since the lockdowns in Europe have taken a toll on Germany's logistics operations.

Boon for the lawyers: It's been two years since Canada legalized recreational marijuana, but the pandemic has provided an unexpected opportunity for the industry to thrive and truly compete against the black market for the first time.

• Compared with the same period last year, Canadians spent 74% more money on licensed cannabis from April to June, while spending on the black market has decreased by 5%, according to data from Statistics Canada.

• Legal sales have also generated more than $231 in July, a 15% increase compared with the previous month and the biggest monthly increase since the country legalized cannabis, Le Journal de Québec reports.

• "There's been a downturn in the black market because people are much more reluctant to go out and meet their regular cannabis dealer in the way that they were prior to the pandemic," retail marketing expert David Soberman told Global News.

An employee arranging cannabis products at the HOBO Cannabis Company during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto — Photo: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/ZUMA

Pushing for legalization: In the United States, 11 states have already legalized recreational marijuana and the pandemic seems to be pushing others to follow their lead, whether it be for economic reasons or to curb the anxiety caused by the lockdown.

• Cannabis in Hawaii is only authorized for medical use, but a new law was signed on Aug. 27 to legalize the growth of hemp in the state through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Domestic Hemp Production Program.

• For former State Senator Will Espero, talking to local network KITV, if the state was hesitant to legalize recreational marijuana until then, the pandemic and its impact on unemployment and the state's economy have "changed the game." Marijuana tax revenue could indeed help diversify Hawaii's tourism-heavy economy.

With New Jersey set to vote in a state-wide referendum to legalize recreational marijuana for those over 21, the pandemic seems to have changed the mind of some.

• A recent poll from Brach Eichler's Cannabis Law Practice showed that 13.5% of those surveyed said the pandemic caused them to now favor legalization and that in total, 65% of the state's residents strongly supported or somewhat supported the ballot question.

• Some may have realized that cannabis could be used to treat anxiety, something many experienced during the lockdown, as the state also allowed medical cannabis dispensaries to remain open.

• For Charles Gormally, co-chair of the firm's Cannabis Law Practice, talking to local news website NJ.com, people are beginning to "accept the concept that cannabis isn't harmful ... and that it actually has a positive impact in many circumstances."


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