Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley previously said he was optimistic that medicinal marijuana legislation would get assent from the governor this year, and the plan may be on track following Dr. Wheatley’s recent meetings with United Kingdom leaders. (File photo: PROVIDED)

Upon returning from his trip to the United Kingdom last week, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley reported progress toward his administration’s goal of legalising medical marijuana.

However, two related laws passed by the House of Assembly in 2020 still await the governor’s assent before the plan can come to fruition. Dr. Wheatley said during a Jan. 23 press conference that he was pleased with discussions held with the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and UK Home Office, “particularly with respect to the licensing of medical practitioners in the Virgin Islands to administer medicinal cannabis to patients.”

He added, “We have found a way forward on this aspect of medicinal cannabis and are proceeding to put the necessary regime in place for approvals. I am grateful to the UK government for their support in this area.”

Legalisation this year?

Legislative moves to legalise marijuana in the territory began when then-Premier Andrew Fahie introduced the Cannabis Licensing Act, 2020 in the HOA in June 2020, leading to extensive debate before members passed the bill later that month.

The law would legalise medicinal marijuana in the territory, establishing the Cannabis Licensing Authority to oversee the “licensing of the analysis, cultivation, processing, importation, exportation, distribution and sale of cannabis in the Virgin Islands,” according to the initial bill text.

Mr. Fahie promoted the move as a potential way to increase the territory’s exports, projecting a “very conservative” $30 million boost to the economy.

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

Governors withhold assent

Both bills stalled after passing through the HOA, however, and then-Governor Gus Jaspert explained in December 2020 that he was withholding assent because the legislation had hit a roadblock with UK leadership. A main concern was transferring licensing responsibilities from the UK’s Home Office to a new authority in the VI that would need to comply with international narcotics regulations, he said.

Dr. Wheatley said in a press conference last October that he remained engaged with UK leaders about medicinal marijuana, and he was hopeful that it would receive assent this year.

In Governor John Rankin’s Jan. 24 Speech from the Throne outlining the government’s legislative agenda, he announced plans to amend the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act to expand the list of narcotics and psychotropic substances to ensure full compliance with the United Nations Convention on Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances, 1988 from the Vienna Convention. However, he did not specifically address cannabis legislation in the speech.