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Medical Marijuana Held In Committee For Now

With many witnesses testifying that they supported medical marijuana but that the bill required major amendment, the Health, Hospitals and Human Services Committee held legislation to establish medical marijuana without a vote, late Monday night.

The measure proposed by Sen. Positive Nelson would legalize medical marijuana or cannabis and set up an oversight board to regulate it. [Bill 31-0348] In 2014, V.I. voters approved by a 57 percent to 43 percent margin a referendum asking the Legislature to consider legalizing medical marijuana.

Monday’s hearing was the second for the bill, following a session Friday. Sen. Kurt Vialet, the committee chair, said the committee plans to draft multiple amendments and hear the bill again in the near future.

As the session went from afternoon to evening to late at night, a bevy of expert testifiers, including several who strongly support medical marijuana, testified that the bill needed to be overhauled, clarified and amended to give greater oversight. Provisions on how marijuana is prescribed, how growers are licensed and regulated, how production is monitored and controlled, how much a person can get at once, were among those that raised concern among proponents.

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As at Friday’s hearing, a number of long-time supporters of medical marijuana and people in the marijuana industry testified in support. But many testifiers with no history of advocacy and no axe to grind, including representatives of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce, well as committed marijuana advocates, expressed support for medical marijuana. Ken Phillips, a consultant for the St.Thomas-St. John Chamber not only strongly urged passage, but said he and the Chamber endorsed legalized "adult use" of marijuana.

"When considering trends in other Caribbean jurisdictions and the mainland U.S., we believe the legalization of adult-use cannabis is timely and would provide numerous benefits to the USVI, both financially and socially," Phillips said, adding that "increased local business ownership opportunities, net new job creation and related employment opportunities, and meaningful tax revenues that do not cannibalize existing revenue sources are just a few of the many benefits.

He said a Chamber study suggested legal adult-use sales to cruise passengers could generate upwards of $10 million per year in tax revenues and as much as $75 million to $100 million to the territory’s gross domestic product. The Chamber endorsed medical marijuana and agrees that "the many health benefits of cannabis have been well documented," and that "a well-drafted Medical Bill would act as a prototype for future adult-use, if such an initiative is ultimately adopted," Phillips said.

Yet despite such strong support, Phillips added to the list of concerns raised by other testifiers, saying it needs much tighter controls.

"The bill should offer specific and more granular, conservative and comprehensive guidelines in the areas of business ownership and residency requirements, ownership and financial transparency, financial and security controls, zoning, advertising, the number and types of licenses to be granted, cultivation limitations and accountability, quality control and testing standards, and clearer guidelines for regulatory compliance," he said. "These issues should not be left to the “business plan proposed by the applicant."

Leaving details of regulation to a board at a later date was too vague and too risky, he said.

Jordan Wellington, an attorney for the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber, similarly, recommended an array of changes to meet the conditions of a federal memorandum giving guidelines to federal law enforcement on when to get involved in state and local marijuana distribution. He said that document; the Cole Memorandum, cites among its concerns: preventing distribution of marijuana to minors, preventing revenue going to criminal enterprises and preventing marijuana from traveling to states where it is illegal.

As when the bill was heard Friday, V.I. Attorney General Claude Walker and a few others remained vehemently opposed to medical marijuana, as did Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly.

Walker was probably the most alarmist of the testifiers, saying that after hearing more testimony he was "even more convinced that it will be a complete and total disaster for the children of the Virgin Islands and potentially wipe out an entire generation due to marijuana use."

Walker said the bill would mean doctors could smoke immediately before operating on you and pilots could smoke immediately before flying.

"You may not even want a mechanic to work on your car after smoking marijuana" because if a mechanic makes a mistake, it could result in an accident, Walker said.

As alcohol use is legal for adults and heavily advertised, yet pilots and surgeons are still not allowed to drink immediately before work, those arguments may be unrealistic.

But Walker did not completely rule out support for medical marijuana, ultimately saying he wanted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to certify it for medical use first.

Most senators present at the hearing said they supported medical marijuana in principle, but had problems with the bill in its current form.

"I am not against the medicinal value of marijuana but I am very much concerned," Sen. Jean Forde said. He said he envisions it being prescribed like other medicines,and he does not like the idea of it being grown by individuals. "I think it should be prescribed by a doctor."

"I do support the bill but not in its current form," Sen. Marvin Blyden said. "As has been stated by many testifiers, we must get it right the first time," he said.

"If there is something that can help mankind in medicinal marijuana, I believe we should make that happen," Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd said. "I believe we can fix this. We can’t fix it tonight," he said.

Sen. Novelle Francis said "this issue of medical marijuana legalization is not going to go away," and the Legislature "will have to take some opportunity to address it one way or another."

Sen. Justin Harrigan said he felt the bill allowed too much possibility for marijuana to be diverted "to what I would consider criminal enterprises," and that the bill "in its current form, I don’t believe I could support it." But Harrigan said he does believe there are potential medical benefits to marijuana in some cases.

Nelson made a last-minute, late-night push for the bill, saying "most of the regulatory concerns will be addressed in the regulatory board." Nelson said. He asked Wellington if the FDA involved in the regulation of cannabis in any of the states with medical marijuana and Wellington said it is not.

Sen. Kurt Vialet, the committee chair said the bill needed more work.

"If you can’t be patient for bills to be drafted and corrected then don’t bring controversial bills to the floor," Vialet said.

"It needs to be vetted properly, amended properly, researched properly, and not rushed," he said, adding that some people have expressed to him that the Legislature has passed other legislation after adding amendments in the Rules and Judiciary Committee or on the Senate floor during session. He acknowledged that some bills have been amended and rushed through, but "not this type of bill, it’s apples and oranges," and that a bill of this significance and wide-ranging ramifications needed careful consideration.

"I met with all the committee members and every one agreed that there are too many issues to even call the bill for a vote at this time," Vialet said shortly before the end of the hearing.

Present were: Blyden, Forde, Harrigan, Liburd, O’Reilly, Vialet and Sen. Novelle Francis. No members were absent.  

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