Several government agencies in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) testified on Friday in favor of a marijuana legalization bill the governor is asking lawmakers to approve—with officials outlining how a regulated cannabis market can help the territory, especially given current economic needs.
During a hearing, the Departments of Health, Agriculture and Licensing and Consumer Affairs, among others, weighed in on the proposal, which Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D) unveiled last month. The St. Croix Chamber of Commerce also testified in favor of the reform.
The Office of Management and Budget said the proposed legislation “not only provides a more comprehensive regulatory and enforcement framework for cannabis, but it also promises to create new businesses and jobs and differentiate our tourism product offerings from other Caribbean destinations.”
“In summary, this amended bill would give birth to a new industry that will generate approximately $38 million in sales in the first year or two, create for the Government of the Virgin Islands roughly $13.8 million in direct taxes and fees and probably produce 600-800 direct and indirect jobs,” it continued. “The introduction of fully legalized cannabis use will have an appreciable and positive economic impact.”
Overall, there was broad support for the legislation. Multiple witnesses before the Senate Committee of the Whole emphasized that legalizing cannabis for adult use could help drive tourism and offset financial losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic and other natural disasters such as hurricanes.
Notably, the commissioner of the Virgin Islands Police Department didn’t oppose the bill and chose instead to emphasize that officers will work to uphold any laws enacted by the legislature.
Watch the virtual hearing before the Committee of the Whole below:
Many of the witnesses echoed points the governor has made in recent weeks. Bryan said earlier this month that USVI needs to legalize in order to generate tax revenue for the territory’s fiscal recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. He has also emphasized that taxing and regulating cannabis will help shore up a struggling retirement program for government employees.
“As we prepare for the new norm, post COVID-19, now is the time to prepare ourselves for tomorrow. We shall only fail when we fail to try,” the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs said, adding that the “proposed legislation, if passed into law, will be a major economic driver for the Virgin Islands.”
“With the opening up of the various businesses to cultivate, dispense and manufacture cannabis and cannabis products, the Virgin Islands will realize an infusion of well needed revenues through various licensing fees, taxes and fines,” it continued. “The industry will produce financial opportunities to many locals and will boost our tourism product.”
Positive Nelson, a former senator and current agriculture commissioner who has long advocated for marijuana reform, said the bill “is not perfect,” but he supports advancing and revising it along the way.
“We must trust ourselves to make the necessary tweaks either through rules and regulations and or future amendments to this Act,” he said. “Through passage of this Act we allow quality control, safe places for acquiring cannabis, direct tax dollars and fees, and reduced criminal activities surrounding the protection of crops and turfs.”
The police commissioner didn’t explicitly support the measure, but he said that the department “understands its significant responsibility and intends to enforce the laws enacted by this body to the fullest extent of our ability.”
The St. Croix Chamber of Commerce stated in written testimony that the territory is “in an economic downturn” due to the health crisis and this is “an opportune time to build out this addition to our tourism product and plan for a rollout of this product as our tourism numbers return.”
In addition to establishing a system of legal cannabis sales and production, the bill at the center of the hearing would provide for automatic expungements for prior possession convictions, encourage research into the benefits of marijuana and recognize the rights of individuals who wish to use or grow the plant for religious purposes.
The legislation would also ban home cultivation for recreational consumers, allow cultivation for medical cannabis patients, increase the number of members of the government’s existing Cannabis Advisory Board and limit non-residents to purchasing up to seven grams of flower per day while residents could buy up to an ounce.
There would be no tax on cannabis sales for medical patients, a 7.5 percent tax for residents and a 25 percent tax for non-residents.
In order to own a marijuana business, an individual must have been a resident of USVI for at least 10 years. For micro-cultivator business, the threshold is five years of residency.
A special “cannabis fund” would be established under the proposed legislation, with 20 percent of marijuana tax revenue being allocated to the Office of Cannabis Regulations, a cannabis testing program, job training, substance misuse treatment and grant programs for business incubation and micro-lending.
Members of the committee didn’t hold a vote on the legislation on Friday. Instead, the chair said lawmakers will conduct additional hearings in local districts over the next few weeks with the intent of holding a vote during the June 29 session.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved USVI’s hemp plan last month.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.