The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands plans to send a revised marijuana legalization bill to the legislature on Tuesday, and is urging its passage to generate needed tax revenue from cannabis sales during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D), who pushed for legalization as part of his State of the Territory address in January and previously called lawmakers into a special session to take up the issue, said establishing a regulated marijuana market could help the territory’s retirement system stay afloat.
“We have taken the time to gather further public input as well as address the concerns of the individual legislators,” the governor said during a COVID-19 update on Monday. “As the economic disaster, the last few weeks has created has affected the [Government Employees Retirement System] greatly it is our hope that we can have a greater sense of exigency in implementing all the things that can help us regain solvency.”
While Bryan stressed that legalization “is not the panacea” to USVI’s fiscal problems, he argued that it represents an economic opportunity that could prevent the government from slashing payments for retirees.
“Certainly cutting the annuity of retirees by 30 percent cannot be the path,” he said.
After Bryan first proposed the policy change and directed the legislature to take up the issue in a special session late last year, several legislators voiced opposition to specifics of the proposal.
Some questioned the notion that tax revenue from cannabis sales could make up for the significant deficits running within the retirement programs, while others argued that the legislation does not adequately address social equity. Another issue that arose concerned licensing, with lawmakers worried that small businesses on the island would be left out.
The revised bill has yet to be released, so it remains to be seen whether all of the issues have been resolved to lawmakers’ satisfaction following the governor’s solicitation of public input.
As originally drafted, the legislation would amend the territory’s current medical cannabis law, which Bryan signed early in 2019, to allow adults 21 and older to obtain a license from the government in order to purchase and cultivate marijuana.
The government estimated that legalization would be upwards of $20 million dollars in annual tax revenue. Marijuana would be taxed at 30 percent, with revenue distributed to the government retirement system (75 percent), funding senior citizens initiatives (20 percent) and to the territory’s Office of Cannabis Regulations (five percent).
Bryan also emphasized that tourism would play a role in generating cannabis revenue. The legislation proposed creating “day passes” for adult-use cannabis that visitors would purchase.
The initial bill also provides for automatic expungements for prior marijuana possession convictions, encourages research into the benefits of cannabis and recognizes the plant as a sacrament of the Rastafarian religion.
Last week, the governor of New Mexico also discussed the economic potential of legalization and said she regretted that lawmakers were unable to pass a reform bill during the short session earlier this year, stating that cannabis tax revenue would have been especially valuable during the pandemic.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.