Members of the 33rd Legislature led by Senate President Novelle E. Francis, Jr. convened in Special Session at the Capitol Building on Wednesday to consider the Virgin Islands Cannabis Use Act proposed by Governor Albert Bryan, Jr, which amends the Virgin Islands Medical Cannabis Patient Care Act. Special Session was called by Governor Albert Bryan, Jr. pursuant to Section 7(a) of the Revised Organic Act of 1954, as amended for the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ultimately, senators voted to hold the measure for further consideration.
Rising out of Special Session and into the Committee of the Whole, senators received testimony from representatives of the Virgin Islands Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce, and the community. Testifiers discussed the regulatory process, merits of the bill and financial gains anticipated by the enactment of the legislation. The proposed legislation would generate tax revenues and fees for the Government of the Virgin Islands by expanding from medicinal cannabis to recreational use. The revenues would support the Government Employee Retirement System and the economy. DLCA Commissioner Evangelista indicated that the “cash strapped GERS” can become solvent as a result of the revenues provided by financial opportunities of cannabis for both medicinal and recreational use.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw noted that although she supports the intent of the measure, the narrative to save GERS is fictitious. “The Virgin Islands Cannabis Board is not fully complemented, nothing was achieved from the medicinal aspect, and there are enforcement deficiencies. To sell the amendment from the angle of GERS becoming solvent is a false narrative,” she said.
The proposed legislation would generate revenue through fees for various licenses that would be awarded based on a “merit-based application process.” It also contains specific language to support local farmers, small business owners’ GERS/retirees, medicinal and sacramental users, and the Tourism Industry by recognizing cultural and sacramental uses, creating business ownership and financial opportunities for locals. Senators expressed their concern with the licensing process, which was considered subjective. Sen. Kenneth Gittens said, “The licensing process is alarming because it appears to circumvent small business owners and only benefit business owners from the mainland.”
During the vetting process, senators expressed their overall concerns with the regulatory aspects of the bill, which they found to be lacking. Sen. Francis noted that there are additional amendments required prior to voting in the affirmative. “I am concerned that an even tighter regulatory process is necessary. There is a lot lacking with this measure. It is troubling to leave regulations solely to the Office of Cannabis Regulation when ultimately that breeds corruption.”
The Committee of the Whole re-entered Special Session to act on the legislation, which was affirmatively voted to forward to the Committee of the Whole for further vetting.