Most of the testifiers at Monday’s meeting of the Legislature’s Committee of the Whole want the medicinal use of marijuana legalized, with some saying that the senators should decriminalize its use altogether.
However, the issue at hand concerns putting two proposals on the November ballot in a nonbinding referendum so voters can decide. One asks the Legislature to legalize marijuana for medicinal uses only and the other asks voters if they favor the growing, processing and distribution of industrial hemp in the territory.
“It’s an issue whose time has come,” said Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson as he introduced the bills at the meeting held at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.
A similar meeting will be held Tuesday at the Legislature on St. Croix. It begins at 6 p.m.
The senators will decide when the Legislature meets in session on Aug. 24 whether to allow voters to have their say on the two issues.
If the bills are approved in the session, 50 percent plus one of those who go to the polls will have to vote on the medicinal marijuana issue. Of those who voted on that issue, 50 percent plus one will have to say yes to make it the law. It will take a simple majority, or 50 percent plus one of those who voted, to approve the hemp bill.
A total of nine people testified on the bills. Most were people who said they suffered from a medical condition that was helped by the use of marijuana.
“It helps my bi-polarism and anxiety,” Lucas Warford said. “Other drugs had side effects and were way too expensive.”
He and others spoke about the need to buy marijuana on the street, which puts them in danger from criminal activity.
While some of the testifiers indicated that legalizing marijuana for medicinal uses would entice people to visit the Virgin Islands as medical tourists, Monica Boyd Richards said she worried about the impact people using marijuana at hotels would have on more conventional tourists.
“We could lose 75 percent of our tourism,” she said.
Richards said she feared those medical marijuana tourists would be subject to kidnapping, murder and mayhem.
Later Nelson pointed out that hotels prohibit smoking so medical marijuana tourists wouldn’t be using it inside the hotels.
Using her five minutes allotted for questioning, Sen. Nereida Rivera O’Reilly told about family members, including her brother, whose initial use of marijuana led to the use of stronger drugs. She said her brother was a heroin addict who drowned when he was 32.
“Things happened in my family that left an indelible mark,” she said, vowing that she would try to keep an open mind on the issue.
Several of the testifiers mentioned marijuana’s safety.
“I ain’t seen nobody dead from marijuana,” Kenneth A. Turbe said.
Sen. Craig Barshinger asked the testifiers to put a percentage on how many people in the Virgin Islands used marijuana. Answers ranged from 55 to 80 percent, with testifier Debra McDonald saying earlier she thought the figure stood at 95 percent.
On the issue of totally legalizing marijuana, Curtis Webbe, who said he was a Rastafarian, indicated he used the “herb” as a holy sacrament.
“If it wasn’t for the herb, this place would be a disaster. Stop hating the herb,” he said.
Testifier Roy Howard said marijuana gets a “bad rap.” “The roots of the plant will stop landslides,” he said.
No one spoke against allowing the growth and processing of hemp.
“Industrial hemp could save the planet,” McDonald said, adding that the plant is fast growing.
She and others listed many uses for industrial hemp that ranged from things like butter to cloth to “hempcrete,” a building material that testifier Barbara LaRonde said withstands earthquakes and hurricanes.
In addition to Barshinger, Nelson and O’Reilly, Senate President Ronald Russell and Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone were on the floor to ask questions and make statements.