The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) has officially signed a pair of bills to legalize marijuana and facilitate cannabis expungements in the territory, making it the latest jurisdiction in the country to end prohibition.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D) signed the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Janelle Sarauw (I), just before a 10-day deadline for action. He also took the opportunity to issue a proclamation allowing people to petition for pardons for prior cannabis possession convictions.
“From the beginning of the Bryan-Roach Administration, we have worked towards the legalization of the adult use of cannabis, and today, with the hard work of the members of the 34th Legislature and prior Legislatures and the efforts of my team, we are finally here and finally signing into law the Virgin Islands Cannabis Use Act,” the governor, who released his own legalization proposal in 2019, said.
While Bryan thanked several lawmakers for their work on the issue at a signing ceremony on Wednesday, the sponsor of the reform legislation was notably absent and went unacknowledged. It’s no secret that there’s been tension between the two, with the governor publicly criticizing the senator at points over what he described as unnecessary delays in introducing the reform measure.
“This Act incorporates key aspects of my original proposal, such as one streamlined regulatory scheme for both medicinal and adult use, enforcement powers for the Office of Cannabis Regulation, entrepreneurship and job opportunities for Virgin Islands residents, and the creation of a revenue stream to help fund critical Government initiatives and operations,” Bryan said.
Sarauw told Marijuana Moment in an interview on Tuesday that it was imperative that the legislation wasn’t rushed, as she didn’t want to see a repeat of what she’s described as a poor rollout of the medical cannabis law that was enacted early in Bryan’s administration. Her legislation serves a dual purpose to that end: legalizing marijuana for adult use while substituting the medical cannabis law.
The senator, who was the nominee for lieutenant governor on a ticket opposing Bryan last year, was part of a delegation of USVI lawmakers who visited Colorado last year to learn about the state’s experience as one of the first to legalize recreational cannabis.
“By traveling to Denver and meeting and speaking with individuals involved in all aspects of the industry from regulators, to law enforcement officers, to cultivators, manufacturers and dispensary owners, it is my hope that the individuals involved with the roll-out of this industry have learned best practices and what to avoid as we work to create this industry in the Virgin Islands,” the governor said on Wednesday.
“We are bringing the opportunities to you, but you must also do your part to seize these opportunities. It is my goal to make sure many of us who have been negatively impacted by the criminalization of cannabis are afforded every opportunity to participate in this new and legal cannabis industry.”
The pardon proclamation that the governor separately issued on Wednesday will empower people with marijuana possession convictions to seek relief through the Virgin Islands Department of Justice.
“The Bryan-Roach administration supports the reform of Cannabis policy and the restorative justice effects that go hand-in-hand with that reform,” Bryan said. “Today, I proclaim that all criminal convictions for the simple possession of marijuana under the Virgin Islands Code are fully and completely pardoned. My office estimates that approximately 300 individuals have been convicted of the simple possession of marijuana in the last 20 years.”
This bill signing also comes months after the governor included cannabis legalization revenue in a budget proposal that he sent to lawmakers and indicated that he might convene a special session to enact the policy change.
Here are some of the main provisions of the USVI legalization law:
Adults over the age of 21 can possess up to two ounces of marijuana, fourteen grams of cannabis concentres and one ounce of cannabis products such as edibles, ointments and tinctures.
The legislation will 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 will be several license and permit types, including for cannabis manufacturers, retailers, cultivators, micro-cultivators, testing laboratories and on-site consumption entities.
There will be caps on how many licenses OCR could grant for each of the territory’s main islands. Regulators can issue more after January 1, 2025 if they conduct a study demonstrating that the expansion is needed to meet consumer demand.
Individuals who use marijuana for sacramental purposes can apply for their own cultivation permits.
There will be a tax of no less than 18 percent on marijuana purchased from dispensaries, but that will not apply to medical cannabis. The bill also lays out licensing fees and calls for a 50 cent per gram tax on cannabis cultivators who sell marijuana to other licensees.
Revenue will be split among programs to address behavioral health, homelessness and youth recreation, as well as administration of the cannabis program and the territory’s general fund.
There will 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.
There will be a 100 milligram THC cap on edibles, and each serving can contain up to 10 milligrams.
Additionally, there are residency requirements for marijuana business ownership.
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.
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The complementary expungements legislation that the governor signed was amended ahead of passage and now provides for automatic relief from the courts for people with prior convictions involving up to two ounces of marijuana. As introduced, the legislation would have required people to petition the courts.
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.
USVI isn’t the first U.S. territory to enact the 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.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.