The Senate Committee on Economic Development and Agriculture met Wednesday with the USVI Office of Cannabis Regulation to receive updates related to Act 8680, which allows for the legal use of cannabis by adults for medicinal, sacramental and other uses and also regulates the production, distribution and use of cannabis.
To date, the Office of Cannabis Regulation, which was formed to establish and manage the medical cannabis industry in the territory, has not finalized its cannabis program.
“I would like to take this moment to remind the public that legal cannabis cannot begin until the rules and regulations are completed, and the cannabis programs and dispensaries are open,” said Hannah Carty, executive director for the Office of Cannabis Regulation.
“The blending of a medicinal cannabis program with a more encompassing adult-use industry for individuals over the age of 21 was one of the hallmark features of the Virgin Islands Cannabis Use Act passed by the 34th Legislature,” said attorney Kye Walker, legal adviser to the governor and cannabis legislation.
Senators peppered testifiers with questions ranging from licensing procedures to the duties of personnel in the Office of Cannabis Regulation. One hot topic brought to the floor centered on the use of cannabis for residents of the territory, citing the recent arrests during traffic stops by the police.
“This is not new. People have always been stopped when officers smell or say that they have smelled some odor,” said Walker. “What happens is sometimes individuals have something in the car and that’s what they’re arrested for.”
“Under the current legislation, you cannot smoke cannabis in your vehicle … you have to do it in the comfort of your home,” said Carty. She also made note that the police are working on a training program, “A-Ride,” to identify when persons are driving under intoxication.
Richard Evangelista, commissioner for the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, added that some establishments can apply for on-site consumption licenses to allow for on-site smoking to alleviate persons smoking in illegal areas.
During the hearing, Carty informed the Senate that the Office of Cannabis Regulation is working on a press release to inform the community about the status of cannabis use in the territory. Many of the senators jangled at the suggestion, saying that it would not make a big impact. Sen. Franklin Johnson suggested the rollout of an advertisement and not just a press release to inform the community on the status of cannabis use in the territory.
“The office of the governor is creating a position within his office that is actually going to coordinate the response of all affected agencies to ensure that there is one message going out relative to the current status of cannabis in the Virgin Islands,” said Evangelista.
The Office of Cannabis Regulation also made a note about its staffing shortage. Carty said they are looking to hire 16 additional employees, 11 being for compliance and enforcement. In written testimony by board chair Catherine Kean, the office has been working using a $500,000 budget over the last two years.
“We requested minimal expenditures to manage staff operations appropriately,” said Kean. “The $1,000,000 for two years appropriated under Act 8680 goes much further.”
Tafari Tzaddi, president of the Rastafari Sacramental Cannabis Counsel, Inc., spoke to the inclusiveness of Rastafarians in the cannabis industry.
“We also ask that the people of Virgin Islands be given an extended period to establish this industry locally and to not allow outside or foreign investment until the local establishments have been finalized,” said Tzaddi.
Tzaddi also made note of the persecution Rastafarians have continually faced due to cannabis use. The Rastafari Sacramental Cannabis Counsel asked for exemptions from permit and license fees, education, business, intellectual property, and land grants, water rights, tax reductions, priority licensing, a Rasta cultural center, an amnesty program for those incarcerated, home grow rights for sacramental use, full integration, and advertising and endorsing rights to be considered.
Residency requirements, restrictions for cannabis farming on agricultural land, tri-island lab facilities, the seed-to-sale tracking system, and the use of hemp versus cannabis were also discussed.
According to Evangelista, hemp products can be consumed with less than 0.03% THC, and only the hemp retail license and hemp farmer’s licenses are available.
It was also noted that grant money is available to assist in the education of the cannabis industry.
“There is a $250,000 grant to the office of the governor that’s meant to assist in educational purposes,” said Carty. Walker added that the grant can also be used for microlending.
The Office of Cannabis Regulation anticipates the launch of its program in a year, with applications rolling out after the approval of the 150-page draft rules and regulations.
Also during the hearing, all senators voted in support of Bill No. 35-0049, proposed by Sens. Donna Frett-Gregory and Javan James Sr. The bill establishes an 11-member Local Food and Farm Council and was forwarded to the committee of Rules and Regulations.
“The Virgin Islands used to be the breadbasket of the Caribbean, so I look forward to the day we can export instead of import,” said Sen. Diane Capehart.
Senators Javan James Sr., Marvin Blyden, Donna Frett-Gregory, Samuel Carriόn, Marise James, Angel Bolques Jr., Diane Capehart, Ray Fonseca, Novelle Francis Jr., Alma Francis-Heyliger, Franklin Johnson, and Dwayne DeGraff were present.