As we have stated before, we support the House of Assembly’s recent decisions to legalise gambling and medical marijuana in the territory.
However, we caution that both sectors should be strictly regulated and that any projects undertaken as new opportunities arise should be transparent, community-based efforts that avoid secretive backroom dealings with partners from here or abroad.
Some residents have argued that marijuana and gambling are vices that should remain illegal. But both are already commonplace here.
As for gambling, consider bets at the horse track, street-side card games, and the open sale of Puerto Rican lottery tickets in Road Town.
Marijuana is similarly widespread: It is grown surreptitiously in yards and farms across the territory and smoked often even at public events, and the justice system is burdened with people who have been caught with small amounts of it. Moreover, the world is increasingly accepting its medicinal value.
In both cases, we believe that legalisation will give the government the means to regulate and tax potentially lucrative practices that are already in existence.
But regulators, of course, must be given the resources and authority needed to do their job, and they must do it without fear or favouritism.
Additionally, as the new industries are rolled out, government must give first preference to Virgin Islanders and other belongers and otherwise foster a level playing field.
In that regard, we have serious concerns with the lack of transparency surrounding the government’s plan to work with foreign investors to grow medical marijuana for export on 50 acres in Paraquita Bay.
Leaders have yet to name those investors or disclose full project details, and the plan as described so far seems rather illogical. Why would the VI — whose steep, rocky soil and dearth of freshwater means that agriculture has never been easy here — suddenly be an ideal location for farming pot for export as leaders claim?
Even if they are right, however, they should call a halt to the current deal. Then they should issue a transparent request for proposals and launch a public bidding process. This would allow Virgin Islanders to bid for a piece of the pie instead of immediately handing over the reins to foreigners, and it would allow the government to choose the best option available — possibly from among many.
As for gambling, government has not yet announced any similarly extensive projects, but we expect they will come soon. The bill, after all, would open the door for casinos, a lottery, horse betting and related initiatives.
Here again, government should start with a transparent request for proposals designed to ensure that the territory obtains optimal benefits and that Virgin Islanders have a fair chance to get in the game.
To understand the potential fallout of rushing into a deal after hearing sweet promises from foreign partners, one need only consider the millions lost in the BVI Airways scheme under the previous administration and the greenhouses scheme under the administration before that.
The bottom line? Legislators were right to legalise gambling and marijuana, and we hope that Governor Gus Jaspert assents to both bills soon.
But after that, there is much work to be done.