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Why Alcohol & Weed Were Deemed “Essential” During Social Distancing

On March 21st, 2020, NJ Gov. Murphy signed Executive Order 107. This order decided which NJ businesses were considered ‘essential’ and which were not, as well as forcing all non-essentials to shut down in order to slow the spread of Corona through NJ. Many of the ‘essential’ stores include those you’ve probably already visited during the past week: Grocery Stores, Pharmacies, Gas Stations, Convenience Stores, and Healthcare facilities. 

The reasoning behind these choices seems quite clear: They provide ‘essential’ goods and services, such as medicine for your body, food for your stomach, and gas for your car.  And then there’s Liquor Stores – which, according to Executive Order 107, are just as ‘essential’ as all those listed above. 

When I first read that liquor, stores were deemed ‘essential’ during quarantine, I assumed it was to allow persons experiencing significant duress to ‘unwind’ with a few drinks and take their mind off the national crisis. I discussed or heard mentions of this news from co-workers and family members, all of whom shared a similar assumption.  

However, this is not the truth. Liquor stores were not kept open in NJ to give residents an ‘easy out’ through heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages. NJ officials did not seek to calm residents with alcohol; rather, they aimed to avoid the [APPROPRIATE ADJ] that would rise in its absence. 

In an interview with Paul Nestadt, Assistant Professor at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, NorthJersey author Ashley Balcerzak discussed the reasoning behind liquor stores as an essential business.  

“If someone is dependent on alcohol and they can’t get alcohol, then they can go into withdrawal,” Nestadt said. “Alcohol is one of the few substances that when you’re withdrawing you can actually die. You can’t die from heroin withdrawal or cocaine withdrawal.” 

Recovery webpage Alcohol Rehab Guide lists some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, with increasing severity depending on the amount of time passed since an individual’s last drink. Symptoms range from agitation and anxiety to insomnia, seizures, and visual hallucinations. 

Nestadt believes that NJ officials opted to keep liquor stores open because closing them would put some citizens in need of urgent care, filling up precious hospital beds as well as exposing more citizens to possible contamination. 

On a similar note, states with legal recreational marijuana have also deemed all dispensaries as ‘essential’ during the quarantine. According to Newsweek, several states’ explanations for this decision follows two central lines of reasoning: Dispensaries provide vital resources to struggling state governments, and many individuals use pot for therapeutic purposes. With America’s health-oriented systems already under such enormous strain, state officials are wary of forcing would-be pot buyers onto illicit markets. 

However, neither the explanation for essential liquor stores nor essential dispensaries explains the sharp incline in revenue experienced by both during the quarantine. 

In Moscow, for example, alcohol sales have risen 148% since the onset of quarantine. Local officials are considering placing restrictions on alcohol purchases. 

[[Conclusion, summarized]] 

This uptick in NJ sales could result in some cases where NJ’s reasoning behind keeping liquor stores open backfires… Due to high social/financial stress during quarantine, we may see certain individuals tend towards the over-consumption of alcoholic beverages. 

If this becomes the case, hospitalization or medical services may be unavailable or unable to quickly deal with emergencies.  

Written by Joseph Detrano, CAS Science Writer
Disclaimer: The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies