cannabis

ST. THOMAS — A bill to legalize medicinal marijuana in the territory soundly passed the V.I. Legislature on Friday, marking a huge coup for marijuana advocates and those who have long championed its medical, economic and agricultural benefits.

Meeting on St. Thomas for the final session of the 32nd Legislature, lawmakers voted 9-4 in favor of the bill, citing the 2014 referendum — in which 56 percent of V.I. voters favored legalization — and the evolution of marijuana research as their primary drivers.

“I ask you to pay attention to the revolution in health care that is taking place,” said bill sponsor Sen. Positive Nelson, addressing his colleagues before the vote. “Pay attention to the newly discovered endocannabinoid immune system within the human body. Pay attention to the statistics that have been raised and all of the fear-mongering that has taken place that did not pan out.”

Nelson, a longtime supporter of marijuana legalization, acknowledged that misconceptions linger but said the world of economists, scientists and medical professionals was finally catching up with what the Rastafarian community has “known all along.”

“I know that it’s not an easy decision and it hasn’t been an easy walk, but I’m asking for your support — because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Voting in favor of the bill were Senators Marvin Blyden; Jean Forde; Myron Jackson; Nelson; Tregenza Roach; Sammuel Sanes; Janelle Sarauw; Brian Smith; and Dwayne DeGraff.

Voting against the bill were Senators Novelle Francis Jr.; Neville James; Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly; and Kurt Vialet.

Senators Alicia Hansen and Janette Millin Young were absent.

Despite the favorable vote, the bill was only cautiously embraced by senators.

Supporters like Sanes, Sarauw and Forde openly acknowledged that the bill was far from perfect but was still a good first step that needed improvement.

“This bill is not perfect — it’s not perfect at all,” Sanes said. “But the fact of the matter is this — there’s no such thing as a perfect bill. The 33rd Legislature can come along and fix it and put in all the amendments. But my thing is this: I will vote for this bill if it eases the agony and pain that some of our fellow men and women are suffering with right now.”

Opponents like Vialet and O’Reilly gave impassioned comments to either overhaul the bill or drop it altogether.

“If it was a medical cannabis bill, it would have been excellent, but unfortunately, it is not,” Vialet said. “We’re fooling ourselves by thinking it’s a medical cannabis bill. If we had all of these amendments that will make it a medical cannabis bill — why didn’t we offer it?”

“We talk about this becoming self-sufficient,” he continued. “Where’s the funding mechanism in this bill — there’s none. Where’s the tax in medicinal marijuana — there’s none. So, the government will have to make sure that we put that cost forward every year .”

Vialet said the bill also calls for two medical cannabis testing labs on St. Thomas and St. Croix — but not on St. John.

“Who’s going to test the cannabis on St. John?” Vialet asked. “It can’t come across the waters — there’s a federal prohibition. So, right away, you’re saying that St. John can’t take part in the medical cannabis industry.”

O’Reilly, a longtime critic of legalizing marijuana, lambasted senators who repeatedly justified their support of medicinal cannabis by insisting the “train has left the station.”

“The train has left the station and it’s headed to hell and I’m not getting on it,” O’Reilly countered. “The Organic Act clearly prohibits the V.I. Legislature from passing any law that contradicts or conflicts with federal law.”

O’Reilly claimed the results of the 2014 referendum were “erroneous” because 50 percent of the people that went out to vote on St. Croix “didn’t even bother with the referendum.”

She also said that Colorado, which legalized marijuana in 2012, has seen an increase in arrests of black and Latino men.

“This bill legalizes the drug, not only for medicinal use, but recreational,” O’Reilly said. “This is an excuse for adults who want to smoke to do it freely, and that’s fine. But you will have to live with the consequences. All of you who vote in favor of this today will have to live with those consequences.”

The 50-page bill is titled the “Virgin Islands Medical Cannabis Patient Care Act.”

The bill sets the allowable amount of marijuana for medical consumption by cardholders at a maximum of four ounces, and allows practitioners to cultivate up to 12 marijuana plants for personal consumption.

The bill also establishes the Virgin Islands Office of Cannabis Regulation, headed by a director and governed by the Virgin Islands Cannabis Advisory Board.

The bill intends to provide a 10 percent per pound excise tax for marijuana sold to dispensaries, and a 5 percent sales tax for marijuana retail. The bill allots 25 percent into a separately maintained fund in the government’s General Fund. That amount is divided among various causes, ranging from the Agriculture Department to the Government Employees’ Retirement System.

— Contact A.J. Rao at 340-714-9104 or email ajrao@dailynews.vi.

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