Lawmakers in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a U.S. territory, have voted to send a marijuana legalization bill to the governor’s desk.
The legislation, which was approved on by the CNMI Senate on Thursday by a vote of 6 – 0, with 2 abstentions, passed the House of Representatives earlier this month.
Gov. Ralph Torres (R) now has 28 days to sign or veto the bill, or it will become law automatically without his signature.
If the bill is enacted, CNMI will become the first U.S. jurisdiction to go directly from outlawing marijuana across the board to allowing recreational use. The territory has no existing medical cannabis program, something that has been a precursor to broader legalization in a growing number of states.
It will also be the first place in the U.S. to legalize marijuana sales by an act of lawmakers. The eight existing state commercial cannabis legalization laws were enacted by voter initiatives. Earlier this year Vermont lawmakers passed legislation to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation of marijuana, but that law does not allow for any form of sales.
The legalization proposal has had a somewhat circuitous route to passage. Initially, the Senate introduced and approved a legalization bill. But although the legislation advanced through a House committee and to the floor of that body, some lawmakers raised procedural concerns that bills generating revenue must originate in the House. So representatives crafted their own bill, largely modeled on the original proposal from Sen. Sixto Igisomar (R).
The bill cleared the House earlier this month and, on Thursday, it was approved in a matter of minutes by the Senate.
“Senator Sixto just shared the house amendments to the senators and confirmed to them that the house bill still had most of the senate version intact and requested their support to accept it as is and move forward,” Gerry Palacios Hemley of the advocacy group Sensible CNMI told Marijuana Moment.
“It took them less than 7 minutes to passage.”
“The reason being that they have deliberated this issue for a while now since it was started in the senate in 2015 leading to its passage a couple months ago and felt that the only thing left to do was to act on it by vote,” Hemley said.
Now it is up to the governor to decide whether CNMI becomes the next U.S. jurisdiction to legalize marijuana. While Torres has expressed some concerns about potential “public safety issues,” advocates are hopeful he will allow the bill to become law.
“I will say this for the record: we should look at both sides of the coin. In the nine states that have legalized marijuana, have we seen an increase in crime?” Torres said in June. “If there is, what is the nature of these crimes? We should look at this and other things. I am concerned about public-safety issues.”
A growing body of research shows that state legalization laws don’t increase crime. One recent study indicated that police are able to focus on solving other crimes when they don’t have to enforce laws against cannabis possession.
“We expect the governor to strongly consider the evidential support given by both houses and the overwhelming support at public hearings and committee sessions, along with the research documents and testimonies submitted to making a favorable decision for the bill’s intent,” Hemley said.
“We are very hopeful he will sign it.”
If the bill is enacted, adults over 21 years of age and qualified medical cannabis patients will be able to legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana, as well as infused products and extracts. Home cultivation will also be allowed, and regulators will issue licenses for cannabis producers, testing facilities, processors, retailers, wholesalers and lounges.
“This is a historic moment, as it is the first time a governing body in the U.S. has ever enacted legislation to both end marijuana prohibition and establish a system of regulation to replace it,” Karen O’Keefe, state policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. “Adults and medical cannabis patients will finally be able to access marijuana safely and legally, and products will be regulated and controlled to ensure they are safe for consumers. This legislation will allow for the establishment of new businesses that create jobs and generate new tax revenue that can support important programs and services.”