On Tuesday the House of Assembly passed a bill to legalise the medical and therapeutic use of marijuana in the Virgin Islands, allowing for the possession of the drug in small amounts under strict regulations. The legislation now awaits assent from the governor to become law. (Photo: PROVIDED)

After hours of public debate followed by similarly lengthy closed-door deliberations, the House of Assembly passed a bill on Tuesday that would legalise the production and use of medical marijuana in the Virgin Islands.

Premier Andrew Fahie introduced the bill for a first reading on June 19 during the 10th sitting of the House, and members launched into extensive discussion on Friday in the 11th sitting. Legislators spent most of Tuesday workshopping the bill in closed-door committee before giving it a unanimous stamp of approval. Now it only awaits assent from Governor Gus Jaspert before becoming law.

The Cannabis Licensing Act, 2020 provides the framework for a medical marijuana industry in the territory. The premier said the bill wouldn’t mean any resident could smoke a joint on the street for fun.

Only medical use would be permitted, he said. Per the bill, adults can possess up to one gram of “medicinal cannabis for medicinal or therapeutic use” without filling out any forms.

After filing a self-declaration form, a person would be able to possess up to 50 grams of the drug or 10 grams of cannabis resin. A medical practitioner could issue documentation to allow the possession of more than 50 grams.

Visitors would be able to possess cannabis as “therapeutic users” after filing a self-declaration form detailing their name, address, date of birth, proof of identity, and the nature of ailment for which they seek treatment. Therapeutic users who are minors would need a legal guardian to serve as their caregiver administering medicinal cannabis.

The Cannabis Licensing Act states that anyone exceeding the possession limits faces a maximum $100,000 fine and three to 10 years in prison on summary conviction; and a maximum $200,000 fine and 10 to 15 years in prison on conviction on indictment.

The bill also would establish the Cannabis Licensing Authority, which would regulate the analysis, cultivation, processing, importation, exportation, distribution and sale of cannabis in the Virgin Islands.

The authority would be charges with exploring “the establishment of a licensed medical cannabis industry recognising the medicinal and therapeutic properties of cannabis and exempting from the strict regulatory framework cannabidiol that has been shown to have non-addictive and non-psychoactive effects.”

Trade and production of cannabis would not be allowed without the relevant permit.

The authority also would maintain a confidential database tracking all cannabis harvested, processed, sold and exported in the VI.

Industry investors

Mr. Fahie said government aims to dedicate 50 acres of land to the cultivation of medical marijuana on half-acre plots in Paraquita Bay, employing a targeted 100 VI farmers. The bill stipulates that Cabinet could designate other areas in the future.

The premier said Friday that unnamed investors with whom government has been consulting have outlined what the territory would need to do to cultivate medical-grade marijuana that meets international standards.

Only licensed growers would be able to cultivate medical marijuana in the VI, he said. Mr. Fahie maintained that projections show a potential $30 million industry in exporting VI-grown cannabis to international markets. He also shared a vision for establishing medical tourism in the territory, where individuals can take advantage of medical marijuana laws and the VI’s natural resources.

Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture Minister Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley expanded on these possibilities, detailing potential deals with the United States National Football League and National Basketball Association for players to recover in the offseason.

Mr. Fahie added, “Medical marijuana has the potential to be another golden goose.”

Non-medical use

Though the bill solely addresses medical use, Opposition Leader Marlon Penn said it is time to work more closely with Rastafarian residents, who sometimes wish to use marijuana in religious practices.

Trade and Economic Development Junior Minister Shereen Flax-Charles also supported incorporating the Rastafarian community in the legislation, especially as it relates to licensing.

In the debate prior to committee, Dr. Wheatley called this measure an issue of social justice.

“I cannot finish a debate on cannabis and not mention the group of individuals, this group who has been persecuted for the use of cannabis over the decades,” Dr. Wheatley said. “We are concerned about the social ills and potential of negative impact on our society with the introduction of cannabis. But it doesn’t seem to bother us — I guess because maybe the persons who are going to jail and being prosecuted are not worth our sympathy. We have individuals who go to jail and spend years out of their life in prison simply because they grew a plant.”

In response to a question from the Beacon as to whether the House made any amendments to allow for religious use, Dr. Wheatley said international conventions prevented them from doing so.

He added that the House risked not receiving approval from the governor and the United Kingdom, where recreational use remains illegal, if it allowed anything beyond medical use.

“This is one step in the right direction, but we have more fighting to do,” he said. “I think in the next few years, attitudes will change.”

Dr. Wheatley said he will focus on involving the Rastafarian community in the cultivation and dispensing of medical marijuana.

Financial industry

When considering the big picture of growing a cannabis industry in the territory, Mr. Penn drew attention to financial management.

He said the promised multimillion-dollar industry would likely have to operate largely in cash because of banking restrictions in the United States, where marijuana hasn’t been legalised at the federal level.

The member expressed concern that dealing in large cash flows could pave the way to future issues with money laundering and terrorist financing, which would be a black mark on the territory’s record as it prepares for an upcoming Financial Action Task Force financial evaluation that was previously delayed by the 2017 hurricanes.

Considering farmers likely wouldn’t be able to get bank loans, he also questioned how start-up costs would be financed, and how involved investors would be.

“We have a responsibility from a regulatory point of view to make sure it has strong footing,” he said.

In his concluding remarks, the premier said the issue of bank derisking is a bone of contention throughout the Caribbean right now, and money laundering is a concern in any industry. What was important, he said, was establishing narrow regulations in the committee process.

Drug misuse

In a related move designed to address the criminal-justice aspects of legalising cannabis, Deputy Premier Carvin Malone brought the Drug (Prevention of Misuse) Amendment Act, 2020 to the House for second and third readings.

“When we make laws in the House of Assembly, equity, consistency and fairness cannot be mere buzzwords. They must be practised,” Mr. Malone said on Tuesday, explaining how the companion bill would give many people convicted of carrying small amounts of the drug a clean slate.

The bill would expunge the criminal record of a person found guilty of possessing no more than 50 grams of cannabis or no more than 10 grams of cannabis resin, as long as they meet certain criteria.

The person must have been arrested at least a year ago; must not have any subsequent criminal charges filed related to the arrest; must have committed an offence that is not associated with indictable offences under the Criminal Code 1997; must not have supplied cannabis with the intent to traffic; and must not have supplied to individuals younger than 18.

The court can also consider the petitioner’s current age, age at the time of the offence, time since conviction, and the consequences of having the charge on their record.

Mr. Malone said this legislation is an important step in levelling the playing field for people who are seeking employment but have been convicted for minor possession.

“There are often a large number of persons who would have ended up in courts and the prison systems for possession of very small quantities of cannabis, such as the range of the volume we are seeking to decriminalise through the medical marijuana legislation that was passed here in this honourable House,” Mr. Malone said.

No one sought to debate the bill when the floor opened after 10 p.m. on Tuesday, and members concluded by heading into closed-door committee to amend the bill. As of press time yesterday, they had not yet announced plans for when they would reconvene to potentially vote on the bill.

Paraquita water

The 50 acres of land for growing medical marijuana would be located at Paraquita Bay.

Working in concert with Dr. Wheatley, Transportation, Works and Utilities Minister Kye Rymer said he is focused on establishing a better water connection to the Paraquita Bay farmlands.

“The team at Water and Sewerage has identified several open-ended lines on the lands of farmers with water hardly going to the grounds,” Mr. Rymer said.

Employees identified three major concerns with irrigation: feeder lines connected to the main line are not receiving water and hurting functional areas; inconsistent water pressure among the feeder lines; and a need for proper sprinkler systems.

“In order to provide the adequate supply of water to these farmers consistently, the entire system must be redone,” he said. “However, the Water and Sewerage Department through the ministry is committed toward providing guidance and solution in resolving these issues.”

Dr. Wheatley said repairs to the agricultural station are ongoing, with plans to upgrade office spaces and purchase equipment for farmers.

“The Town and Country Planning Department is assisting us with a comprehensive plan for the Paraquita estate to ensure it is properly planned as we push for greater productivity on the estate,” he said.