Senators spent Friday scrutinizing a 60-page piece of legislation proposed by Gov. Albert Bryan that would revise the Virgin Islands Cannabis Use Act, but after eight hours of debate the lawmakers were divided as to whether the measure was ready.
Meeting as the Committee of the Whole, the Senate discussed the bill that would expand the medical marijuana program approved by the Senate and signed into law by Bryan a year and a half ago. The new bill proposes amendments to the existing act to provide better regulation, and generate tax revenue that could alleviate the impending insolvency of the Government Employee Retirement System.
Sen. Kurt Vialet said when the original act was passed by the previous Legislature and signed into law, it was under the assumption that those who needed medical cannabis would be supplied access, but the cannabis board that had 12 months to come up with policies to regulate the industry failed to do so, asking for an extension in December. This has caused senators to feel pressure to not let the process drag on.
But some committee members have been skeptical of the enhanced bill since the governor first unveiled it in December. Friday’s hearing demonstrated at least some senators remain on the fence and certain testifiers who were proponents of the bill also showed hesitation.
Barbara LaRonde, president of the V.I. National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws testified, that the legislation should be examined for social inequities and specifically address the community hardest hit by the war on drugs.
“I would like to address the regulatory issues identified in this proposal through my experiences. Throughout this document ‘at the discretion of the Office of Cannabis Regulation’ is used 11 times in this proposal, leaving undefined regulatory guidelines,” LaRonde said.
Vialet said the bill’s language was also unclear about the legalization of recreational cannabis and if Virgin Islanders are granted the same privileges as tourists.
Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Richard Evangelista confirmed that residents are included, and the bill specifies islanders ages 21 or older can apply for a non-certified user permit.
“I don’t know where this one is going to end up,” Sen. Athneil Thomas said before highlighting other problems he saw with the bill. “Make no mistake that the success of us venturing into this industry will be impactful and put a lot of smiles on a lot of faces,” but he was worried about moving forward without ensuring equal opportunity to all islanders.
Another issue senators pointed to was the promise of tax revenues that proclaims to save GERS with the enhanced bill that would establish a direct revenue stream, a payment generated from 75 percent of the tax and fee revenues.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens said he was not convinced, “And there is nothing that’s showing us today that this is the answer to our GERS problem.”
However, those issues could be resolved by amendment, Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said, adding that it was time to move forward.
“I have listened to some of the discourse between the testifiers and some of my colleagues, and I know that regardless of how many amendments we bring to this legislation they are not going to support it,” Frett-Gregory said. “The world has changed, and we have to move with the changing tide.”
Sen. Novelle Francis Jr., president of the Committee of the Whole, said the Senate plans to hold hearings about the measure on St. Croix and on St. John in the near future, and get the bill ready to vote on by the next session date.
All senators were present, with the exception of Sen. Steven Payne Sr. who had an excused absence.