A U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) senator has filed a pair of bills to legalize marijuana in the territory and facilitate expungements for people with prior cannabis convictions.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw (I) filed the legislation months after Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D) included a cannabis legalization revenue in a budget proposal he sent to lawmakers and indicated that he might convene a special session to enact the policy change. He’s criticized Sarauw, who is running for lieutenant governor this year, for delaying the introduction of her bill.
The senator said on Monday that counsel for the U.S. territory’s unicameral legislature completed its review of her legalization and expungement bills earlier this month, clearing the way for their filing.
“It has been a very cumbersome process to get these bills to where they are today,” she said in a press release, adding that the legalization measure was crafted in a way that’s meant to promote equity and incorporate lessons learned from legal marijuana states like Colorado, which USVI lawmakers visited for a cannabis summit this year.
“To ignore those lessons would be foolish,” Sarauw said. “As a political scientist, but most importantly as an elected representative of the people, it is my job to do the due diligence to protect the masses and the best interest of our residents by creating equity in opportunity.”
For his part, the governor has repeatedly pushed for legalization over recent years and released his own reform proposal in 2019 that stalled in the legislaure. He told voters earlier this year to call Sarauw and ask her why she’s delayed her bill introduction.
“Janelle Sarauw has been sitting on the cannabis legislation for two years, saying she has a piece of legislation,” he said last month. “We’ve waited. She hasn’t produced any legislation.”
It’s unclear whether that pressure amidst the coming election affected the senator’s decision to file the legislation. But while the legalization bill comprehensively addresses issues like industry licensing, there’s a notable lack of language that directly addresses the rules for consumers like possession limits or home cultivation policy.
Here are some of the main provisions of the legalization bill:
The legislation would create an Office of Cannabis Regulation (OCR), tasked with issuing marijuana business licenses, overseeing the industry and setting rules on issues like advertising, packaging and labeling.
There would be eight license and permit types, including for cannabis manufacturers, retailers, cultivators, micro-cultivators, testing laboratories and on-site consumption entities.
There would be caps on how many licenses OCR could grant for each of the territory’s main islands. Regulators could issue more after January 1, 2023 if they conduct a study demonstrating that the expansion is needed to meet consumer demand.
Individuals who use marijuana for sacramental purposes could apply for their own cultivation permits.
The bill lays out licensing fees and calls for a 50 cent per gram tax on cannabis cultivators who sell marijuana to other licensees.
Tax and fee revenue, which OCR would control, would go into a new cannabis fund and first be used to cover administrative costs of implementing the program, with additional dollars funding a territory testing facility, grants for micro-lending to micro-cultivators, low- and no-interest loans for social equity applicants, a job training program, substance misuse treatment and research into the medical efficacy of marijuana.
There would be a track-and-trace program for cannabis products.
There are also several equity components in the legalization bill, including prioritized application scoring for minority, women and service-injured entrepreneurs.
The legislation sets a goal of creating an industry where at least 51 percent of the businesses are owned by social and economic equity applicants, including those from areas disproportionately impacted by the drug war and distressed farmers.
It also calls on retailers to buy 10-50 percent of their cannabis product stock from social equity brands.
There would be a 100 milligram THC cap on edibles, and each serving could contain up to 10 milligrams.
Additionally, there are residency requirements for marijuana business ownership. Majority owners must reside in USVI; if there aren’t majority owners, at least 50.1 percent of the entities holding the license must be run by residents.
There are packaging and labeling restrictions, with the bill stipulating that labels must include health warnings and be designed in a way that doesn’t appeal to people under 21.
The whereas section of the bill says that “the legalization of Cannabis for adult use can alleviate social injustices experienced by persons subjected to the criminal justice system for simple possession of Cannabis.”
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“By establishing a regulated system, this chapter provides oversight of the cannabis industry to protect public safety and create economic opportunities for the Virgin Islands and its bona fide residents,” it says.
“This act is intended to strengthen the support intended to local farmers, small business owners, medicinal and sacramental users, and the tourism industry by recognizing cultural and sacramental uses, creating business ownership and financial opportunities for local Virgin Islanders, increasing revenue to the Government of the VI by enabling sales to tourists.”
The bill sponsor said that “there have been many politically driven false narratives about this cannabis legislation,” but she’s “proud of the work done to ensure that locals and minorities are not locked out of the industry and have an opportunity to participate in the economic potential of the industry—from farming, to dispensaries, to incentives for boutique labs, and micro energy providers.”
The complementary bill on expungements from Sarauw is significantly shorter, with just three pages of text that lays out a process where people can petition the courts to clear prior convictions involving up to two ounces of marijuana.
There would be no waiting time to process the expungements for people with eligible convictions who submit a petition.
While the governor has sharply criticized Sarauw over the delayed introduction of the legalization measure, it seems likely that he’d be willing to sign the legislation into law if it’s approved by the legislature. That said, Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory (D) indicated that it likely won’t be taken up until next session, which begins in January.
Bryan, who has also talked about marijuana as a safer alternative to opioids for pain treatment, stressed in May that it’s “been three years now moving” the issue, and so lawmakers need to “get it through the legislature so we can get some money going.”
He signed a medical cannabis legalization bill into law in 2019.
There was a hearing on the governor’s adult-use legalization proposal in 2020, with several government agencies testifying in favor of the reform and outlining how a regulated cannabis market could help the territory, especially given its economic needs.
Bryan has also emphasized the need to legalize, tax and regulate cannabis to generate revenue amid the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, other U.S. territories have also moved ahead with cannabis reform.
The governor of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) signed a bill to end prohibition in 2018.
The following year, the governor of Guam signed legalization into law.
A senator in Puerto Rico, where medical cannabis is legal, filed a bill this month to remove penalties for low-level marijuana possession.
Read the text of the USVI marijuana legalization and expungement bills below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.