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Legalize It Now! (But Do It Right)

On Jan. 5, 2012, police raided several homes in Frederiksted for suspected involvement in selling marijuana. In the predawn light, Kendall Petersen Jr. ran out of the house, threw a gun into the bushes and was promptly shot and killed by an officer who could not tell if Petersen had a gun on him or not.

Police found a gun on the far side of a fence and three pounds of pot in the house.

His father, Kendall "Seigo" Petersen, a V.I. Constitutional Convention delegate, Rastafarian and Crucian nationalist, had been arrested a few years earlier for marijuana. Seigo Petersen has since passed away too. 

The younger Petersen was grandson of Frank "Frankie Pete" Petersen, who built their family home in town and helped create the islands’ first blood bank and first modern sewer system.

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"My son is a born Rastafarian and it is his right to smoke marijuana," Seigo Petersen said of the marijuana bust during a press conference he called to demand the FBI take over the investigation of his son’s fatal shooting. His attorney, Martial Webster, took a different tack, asking "is it worth breaking down a door in the middle of the night with guns drawn where you and your wife are sleeping for three pounds of marijuana?"

The officer who shot Petersen Jr. was just doing his job under extremely difficult circumstances. In the pre-dawn light, he saw a man with a gun, then the same man coming his way, in the midst of an adrenaline-filled police raid on the property. The officer was ultimately acquitted, but his life is changed forever.

He has to look over his shoulder and wonder if someone wants revenge. He has to remember shooting a young man. Petersen is dead. His siblings and family have to live with that. To defend the officer, attorneys smeared Petersen, accusing him of murder, although no victim was identified and no evidence given.

These and countless other tragedies, large and small, are the costs of marijuana prohibition in the USVI. Keeping pot illegal has fed street crime by enticing young men who have few financial resources to try to make money in its illicit sale. It has made criminals of thousands of young Virgin Islanders who partake. It has corrupted otherwise upstanding police who turn a blind eye to friends and relatives who imbibe or sell.

Keeping marijuana illegal prompts those involved with its sale to arm themselves illegally. A storeowner can have a gun and a safe. And can call the police for help. A marijuana seller like Petersen cannot.

And keeping it illegal breeds distrust of police and a "don’t snitch" mentality among buyers and sellers – and those who know them – that undermines law and order in general.

Convicted sellers are permanently criminalized and cannot find employment as police officers, corrections officers or teachers, because they got involved in selling something that is widely tolerated, widely consumed, allegedly less harmful to the user than cigarettes or alcohol, and whose use was recently decriminalized in the territory.

Barred from moving forward in life, some convicted for minor marijuana crimes see their options as either working at low-pay, dead-end jobs or trying again at something more profitable but less legal. The list of high paying jobs waiting out there for a Frederiksted youth with a high school diploma but no college degree is short and easy money is tempting. Making that youth a criminal is counterproductive.

People are shot – not because marijuana has a side effect that makes people shoot other people, but over debts, over turf-wars and to rob people of their stock – all stemming not from the drug, but from its prohibition.

The same occurred during alcohol prohibition and subsided when prohibition ended.

Some argue against legalization, saying children should not use it and society should not encourage it. As if the only two possible options were either giving it away with school lunches or locking everyone involved up like they were burglars or muggers.

But because it is sold in the street, illegally, children see those dealers openly defying the law and some absorb the idea that this is normal, that the police are weak and the self-styled gangsters are strong and have all the money.

Illegal street-corner dealers also may not be as fastidious about selling to minors as licensed, regulated stores would be.

Marijuana, though not harmless, does not cause these blights. Prohibition causes them.

Some argue that marijuana users will move on to harder substances. But in reality the overwhelming majority do not use other drugs and there is no evidence suggesting something about marijuana’s effects is to blame for those who try more than one prohibited intoxicant.

Some say legalization would create rampant lawlessness and explode the number of users. But that has not happened where it is legal now.

Some say new strains of marijuana are so strong as to be a different, somehow more evil substance – much as rum is much, much stronger than beer. After all, no one ever got drunk on beer. Except that unlike rum, no one is lying in the street, passed out and puking, from dangerous "super-weed." It’s a fiction.

All of these arguments, weak on their own, also ignore the fundamental reality that prohibition has been in place for decades and has had little effect on marijuana’s availability in the territory.

Marijuana use is common and open. People smoke on the beaches, outside of bars, in the streets, and in the shade of the territory’s fish and vegetable markets. Those are facts. Everyone knows it.

Once while walking along the Frederiksted waterfront with one of St. Croix’s elders, a man told me stories of how locals used to haul their small wooden fishing vessels onto the shore using ropes and chains attached to old tamarind and mahogany trees at the water’s edge. Looking closer at a tree with old chain sticking out, I could see the hollow trunk was full of fist-sized baggies of marijuana, decorating it like an inside out Christmas tree.

Acting nonchalant, in light of the many around who, frequenting the area every day, must have already known about it, I continued on, pretending not to have noticed anything, chatting about the old slaughterhouse that used to dispose of guts near there, attracting sharks. These were not the ubiquitous little postage-stamp sized “dime bags” one sees on the ground everywhere throughout the territory, but sizeable bags. This was not one of the many locations known as a "drug corner."

Marijuana is everywhere. But it is not producing the equivalent of "winos" or "crackheads" roaming the streets, begging and stealing. It simply is not as harmful as alcohol or cocaine.

The USVI should legalize marijuana for recreational use. But it should not do so blindly.

Gambling, widely regarded as a vice – and unlike marijuana is expressly forbidden in the Bible – has a lot to teach about the legalizing of other personal vices and habits. St. Croix historical icon Caspar Holstein made a fortune running an illegal lottery and other illegal gambling businesses in turn of the century Harlem, using some of his wealth on hurricane relief, building schools, lobbying the U.S. to purchase the territory from Denmark and other causes. Later the Italian mob forcibly took over his business.

Now states routinely run lotteries themselves, largely as a way of preventing organized crime from profiting off it. But the USVI lottery, one of the oldest in the country, has often lost money and barely breaks even.

Casino, racino and "video lottery" gambling revenues may generate some jobs but a big chunk of the revenue goes off-island to the companies that were granted contracts to operate the games. And many of the gamblers – up to 90 percent – are local residents. So those dollars, which would have circulated in the local economy, instead vanish to the pockets of stateside corporations.

Just as every dollar spent in the territory has a "multiplier effect," enhancing the economy as it is spent again and again, buying goods and services, every dollar sucked out of the economy to the states must have a negative multiplier effect, as it is never spent here again.

If some corporation imports marijuana to this tropical island, much of the money will immediately turn around and leave the territory. Instead of young men selling on the street corners and in the bars, we will have a smaller number of young men working for minimum wage at the register in some chain shop. We can do better.

When the Legislature debated adding a medical marijuana referendum to the ballot in 2014, Steve Kubby, founder of Cannabis Sativa Inc., a publicly traded, Nevada-based medical marijuana breeding company, testified in support, saying medical marijuana in the Virgin Islands would help fill hotel rooms with patients seeking it.

“Someone in the Caribbean is going to take the lead," Kubby said. He may be right. But does anyone who supports legalization want to see us selling franchised marijuana from Cannabis Sativa Inc.?

The Legislature should legalize only locally grown marijuana and should license growers and sellers, restricting it to traditional family farms, defined, like local fishing, by families who have traditionally engaged in farming in the USVI.

This would keep revenues local and maximize any beneficial financial and employment impact. It should be taxed heavily and the taxes devoted to the ailing government pension system.

A family farm requirement for marijuana farming might be crafted to benefit those whose families have farmed here for generations. Benefits for much the same demographic group were sought by delegates during the fifth V.I. Constitutional Convention, but were in violation of federal law and the U.S. Constitution. Family farm laws, on the other hand, have a solid legal history. Not everyone who qualified would approve of this trade. But they would be free to not be involved.

If the territory acts now to legalize marijuana, while it is still novel and enticing to tourists, the USVI may be able to generate extra visitation and, with special taxes, generate much needed revenue for the government’s ailing pension system. But if the Virgin Islands hesitates and timidly debates the issue until after many other states have already legalized it, then we may miss the boat and gain little, as we have with casino gambling. With casinos all over the country and online gambling readily available, no one anywhere is planning a trip to the territory for a chance to gamble.

At the national level, a 2015 Gallup poll found 58 percent of Americans support legalization for recreational use. Five major jurisdictions – Washington, Colorado, Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia – have already legalized recreational marijuana. It is now a billion-dollar a year industry in Colorado, generating more than $135 million in tax revenue for the state last year and more this year, according to Fortune Magazine. Legal marijuana is a $6.7 billion industry nationwide now, according to an ArcView Market Research report cited by Fortune Magazine.

According to Ballotpedia, the encyclopedia of American politics, up to 20 more states may have ballot measures on legalizing recreational or medical marijuana this year alone, adding to the 35 states with medical marijuana now.

That doesn’t include Puerto Rico, whose previous governor, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, legalized medical marijuana by executive order in 2015 and called for legalization earlier this year before leaving office.

Since 2014, possession of small amounts of marijuana in the U.S. Virgin Islands is a civil infraction subject to a $100 or $200 fine, instead of potential jail time and permanent criminal record.

But selling is still a serious crime and use is still illegal. 

Police, the V.I. Bar Association and Office of the Public Defender all gave at least qualified support of decriminalization, if not legalization.

Attorney General Claude Walker opposed decriminalization and certainly opposes legalization. Walker is also on record arguing against any reductions in any criminal penalties under any circumstances.

No one has had the courage to put legalization to a public vote. But a 2014 ballot question on support for medical marijuana was approved with 56 percent in favor to 44 percent opposed.

The nonbinding referendum has no direct effect on the law but informs the Legislature that Virgin Islanders support the change. The Legislature has ignored that mandate.

In 2012, a ballot question: “Are you in favor of the Legislature enacting legislation that allows for the production, processing, manufacturing and distributing of industrial hemp in the Virgin Islands?” passed with 57 percent support. Earlier in 2016, the Legislature approved legalizing a hemp industry, in principal, with many caveats.

Yet V.I. criminal prosecutions of people of limited financial means continue apace. Busts of people flying into the territory with one to 20 kilograms of marijuana dominate this year’s federal court docket in the territory. Several people have been arrested and charged with distribution for small grow operations.

This is an unacceptable waste of limited resources at a time when V.I. murder cases routinely take years to go to trial. V.I. Justice Department prosecutors and public defenders are massively underfunded, overworked and understaffed, and the territory’s top judges say the courts themselves are barely staying in operation due to funding cuts.

Attorney Semaj Johnson has said it is the V.I. Bar Association’s position that decriminalization "is timely and will ease the strain on the lawyers." It "also presents an opportunity to promote greater police efficiency in prosecuting violent crimes and more effective use of court, probation and Bureau of Corrections resources," he said. Those arguments apply to legalization just as well.

Police and prosecutors are addicted to the familiar tactics and simple busts involved in marijuana raids. It makes them feel productive. But the busts just keep happening. And happening. And happening, year after year, decade after decade. They never end, and they never have the slightest impact on either use or sale of the drug. Around and around they go, producing nothing except a growing underclass of criminalized Virgin Islanders.

Sen. Positive Nelson, the one senator closely identified with the decriminalization and legalization movement, has spoken many times about the major negative effects that a conviction for marijuana can have on a V.I. youth, including denial of student loans and being ineligible for many jobs that involve background checks. He and other advocates point to the nationwide trend toward decriminalization, the costs of investigations, trials and incarcerations, and the massive impact a conviction has on a young person’s life in comparison to the lesser impact of the illegal substance itself.

None of this is to say marijuana is harmless. Like alcohol and other intoxicants, and like casino gambling, some who partake become addicted. It makes one fuzzy headed and affects memory. Breathing in smoke is bad for the lungs. But all the medical and scientific data indicate marijuana is much less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, and deaths from consumption are rare to nonexistent.

Some are so addicted to alcohol they die homeless in the street. Yet we live with it being legal and are loathe to even consider higher taxes on booze, lest some hypothetical tourist who spent thousands to come and stay here solely to get drunk on the cheap should choose a different vacation spot.

Some lose everything they own to gambling addictions, yet we are eager to expand gambling in the territory and recently gave a long-existing Christiansted hotel a casino license in hopes of generating a few dollars.

Legalized recreational use, along with locally grown marijuana, grown by local family farms, taxed by the local government and sold by licensed local distributors, would reduce costs to the courts, free up police to focus on serious crimes, reduce street crime and move some young people involved in its trade out of the criminal shadows and back into society.

 And it would prevent any more pointless deaths like that of Kendall Petersen Jr. The territory should act now and not wait until every other state has already ended prohibition.

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