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Charlotte Amalie
Thursday, December 7, 2023
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Commentary | State of the Territory: Fulfilling Promises on Cannabis Legalization and Expungement

In her bi-weekly column, “State of the Territory,” former Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw delves deeper into issues of concern for V.I. residents.

In the picturesque U.S. Virgin Islands, where crystal-clear waters meet sandy shores, a promise was made – the promise of cannabis legalization. This commitment encompassed both medicinal and adult recreational use. However, as time stretches on, these promises have lingered on the cusp of realization. In this comprehensive column, we delve into the historical journey, current state of affairs, and the pressing need for immediate action to harness the immense potential of the cannabis industry and expunge the records of those with past convictions.

History: The Crucial Milestones

I served in the Senate for six years, and understanding the critical need for its completion, dedicated months to the crafting of Bill No. 34-0345, an ambitious piece of legislation that extended cannabis legalization from a purely medicinal realm to embrace the concept of Adult-Use Cannabis. Complementing this, Bill No. 34-0344 sought to amend Title 5 chapter 314 section 3731 et seq. of the Virgin Islands Code, aiming to expunge the criminal records of individuals convicted for marijuana-related crimes and offenses. These bills underwent rigorous scrutiny during Legislative Sessions and received resounding support, garnering votes of 11 yeas, 1 nay, 3 absent, and 12 yeas, 0 nays, 3 absent, respectively.

Read More: Cannabis ExpungementTo understand the intent of the legislation, click complete amendment in the nature of a substitute.

The road to cannabis legalization was paved with extensive and meticulous deliberative meetings. These sessions, often stretching for hours and occasionally testing the endurance of participants with grueling eight-hour marathons, served as the crucible for shaping the legislation. The topics under discussion were as multifaceted as they were complex, encompassing concerns, underlying intentions, and the unique geographic and enforcement challenges inherent to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

One defining feature of these deliberations was the spirit of collaboration. Senators, transcending initial opposition, came together to construct a holistic and inclusive legislative framework. The challenges faced were remarkably unique, primarily owing to the territory’s colonial status, the presence of a substantial federal customs zone, and the intricate geography that sets the U.S. Virgin Islands apart. Consequently, every facet of the legislation demanded meticulous consideration and innovative solutions.

A pivotal juncture in the journey toward cannabis legalization was the Legislative Cannabis Summit in Colorado. This educational expedition provided a profound revelation: the cannabis industry exacts a high price in both human and financial resources when it’s not structured and implemented properly. The summit served as a forum where industry experts candidly shared the mistakes made by different states, the severe consequences of these missteps, and the corrective measures being undertaken to rectify them.

The insights gleaned from Colorado left an indelible mark on the 110-page legislation concerning adult-use cannabis. These lessons galvanized legislators to focus their concerted efforts on two pivotal aspects: social equity and effective enforcement. The revised adult-use legislation now boasts provisions designed to provide opportunities for individuals who have historically been marginalized by cannabis and those who may have been overlooked for various reasons. This version of the bill prioritizes local opportunities, unburdened by the influence of special interests.

Concurrently, the companion legislation, Bill No. 34-0344, emerged to address the critical issue of expungement. This legislation was intentionally presented as a separate bill, divorced from the timeline of the adult-use recreational bill. The underlying motivation was clear – it was time to level the playing field. Individuals with past convictions deserve a chance to start afresh, with a clean slate, and the opportunity to enter the cannabis industry legally as business owners if they so choose.

Read More: Click here to view the companion bill, which deals with the issue of expungement of criminal records related to cannabis use.

Current State: Frustration and Stagnation

The promise of medicinal cannabis, once seen as a beacon of hope for medically ill patients, remains a source of unmet expectations. The transformative reality that so many have yearned for has yet to materialize. Additionally, the topic of adult-use cannabis, with its potential to usher in economic prosperity and social equity, remains ensnared in a web of inaction.

One of the most formidable stumbling blocks encountered in the journey toward cannabis legalization is the perpetual absence of a quorum on the board tasked with establishing rules and regulations governing cannabis implementation. This void of participation is inextricably linked to the administration’s failure to nominate individuals to the Senate, a crucial step towards overcoming the inertia plaguing the process. The inactivity at the highest levels of leadership undermines the painstakingly built momentum around these bills and jeopardizes the remarkable economic benefits that a thriving cannabis industry can bestow upon the territory.

During the election season, the administration championed cannabis as a significant economic driver. However, as time has shown, these claims appear to have been little more than political rhetoric meant to garner support. Unjust blame has been directed towards the Senate, including the legislator responsible for overseeing the comprehensive bill’s drafting. This criticism fails to acknowledge the extensive and collaborative effort invested in creating a robust framework. 

The taxpayer-funded trip to Colorado, undertaken by dedicated legislators, was far from a mere excursion for photo opportunities. It was a fact-finding mission, a quest for enlightenment with a singular aim – to glean the wisdom of industry veterans and avoid the pitfalls that have ensnared other states. The mission was resolute: to translate these invaluable insights into effective action on home turf. However, the fruits of this educational endeavor have been disappointingly elusive.

Urgent Call for Action: Time to Fulfill Commitments

Despite the apparent stalling, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. The Office of Cannabis Regulation (OCR) has taken a significant step by publishing draft regulations governing the territory’s use of cannabis. This extensive 144-page document outlines the entire framework for the yet-to-be-developed cannabis industry. It provides guidance on a myriad of aspects, ranging from the structure and responsibilities of the OCR to the application process for various cannabis-related licenses. It’s crucial to note that while these regulations represent progress, they have not yet undergone legal sufficiency reviews or full vetting by relevant authorities.

In the midst of these developments, the governor has made a noteworthy appointment. Former Commissioner of Agriculture Positive Nelson now serves as the governor’s advisor on cannabis-related matters. However, despite this positive step, the overarching progress on cannabis remains delayed. The absence of a quorum and board continues to impede the process.

Now more than ever, clarion call for action resounds with increasing urgency. The promises made to the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands, the taxpayer-funded endeavors, and the hopes of residents all demand substantial and decisive progress toward a thriving cannabis industry and the expungement of past convictions. The path ahead remains clear, and it is imperative for the U.S. Virgin Islands to unite, overcome the obstacles, and usher in an era of progress, prosperity, and promise. The undeniable potential of the cannabis industry offers economic opportunities, social justice, and relief for those who have long suffered. The time has come for swift and meaningful action. The administration must seize this opportunity to fulfill its commitments to the people, who deserve nothing less than the economic opportunities, social justice, and comfort that legalized cannabis can bestow.

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