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Cannabis law not worth a constitutional crisis

The Cannabis Licensing Act debate failed to answer many questions about the plans to legalise cannabis cultivation and sales in Bermuda (Photograph courtesy of Caribbean News Global)

Bermuda is heading for a full-blooded constitutional crisis. The Cannabis Licensing Act was passed for a second time by the House of Assembly on Friday, and was tabled in the Senate on Monday.

However, that tabling is a simple procedural matter. Having rejected the legislation a year ago, the Senate had no say over its progress after the Lower House passed it unchanged.

It will shortly go to the Governor for assent. Normally, this would be straightforward, but not this time.

Rena Lalgie has already made it clear she is reluctant to sign the Bill because the British Government believes it breaches several international treaties by which Britain, and by extension Bermuda, is bound.

The Premier, David Burt, has made clear he does not agree with Britain and regards this as an intrusion into Bermuda’s domestic affairs and its democratic right to regulate this area as it sees fit.

None of the questions that were raised a year ago, including those brought forward by the senators who turned it back initially, were answered in Friday’s debate.

A year ago, this newspaper said in an editorial: “The Minister of Health might have explained how the Government planned to treat cannabis use as a public-health problem like alcohol or tobacco. She, or the Minister of Education, who did speak, might have explained what preventive measures were being planned to discourage young people from using cannabis, when the damage that can be done to the development of adolescent brains is one of the few proven areas of medical research into this drug.”

A year later Kim Wilson, the health minister, and Diallo Rabain, the education minister, did not answer these fundamental questions. Bermuda is no wiser today than it was then.

In fact, Walter Roban, the Deputy Premier, who was leading the debate in the absence of the Attorney-General, gave precisely the same speech — word for word — that Kathy Lynn Simmons did a year earlier.

When a government has a 24-seat majority, it can of course do what it likes. It can vote a resolution that the sky is pink or declare every day a public holiday.

But good government suggests that if the constitutionally appointed Senate raises legitimate concerns, its members deserve at least the courtesy of a response, even if it is to respectfully say why they were wrong. Perhaps this will still come. But it seems unlikely.

Similarly, it would be of benefit to the people of Bermuda, including or perhaps especially to those who voted for the Government, to explain why this issue is of such importance that it is worth going to the mat over with the British Government at a time when it would seem wise for the country to try to have as many friends as possible.

This is the same British Government, imperfect as it may be, that has given Bermuda tens of thousands of vaccines, enabling us to open our borders long before many larger countries who did not have such access.

It is the same government that has acted as a safety valve for thousands of Bermudians when they have been unable to find work in this country.

And in a world in which there is more economic uncertainty, not less, it would seem wise for Bermuda to ensure it is on good terms with those who are most likely to give assistance should it be needed; not to get into a fight which may not be even necessary.

Again, a year ago this newspaper said: “It is no secret that the British Virgin Islands, which passed similar legislation last year, had to deal with concerns from the British Government and was given a road map to meet British and international objections.”

But based on the debate in the House of Assembly, Bermudians are no wiser as to why such a route would not be acceptable for the island and why it has been rejected.

The public deserve better before being thrust into a fight they did not choose.

Cynics may think that in fact this is exactly what the Government does want because it would appear that an attempt to talk and negotiate would almost certainly achieve most if not all of the Government’s policy goals. But if in fact the Government wants to burnish its independence credentials, then it may prefer a delay to the legislation while blaming Britain. But it need not be so.

If such a fight was necessary, it might be wise to have the support of the public behind it. But in this case, it does not appear to have the support of the whole of its Caucus, and in fact passed the Bill with what constitutes a bare majority — 18 Members — of the House.

Of course, it is also true that only six Members voted against the Bill, and of the 11 who did not cast a vote either way, some would have been absent or, in the case of Derrick Burgess, unable to vote because he was in the chair, although he had said he was opposed. Ms Simmons was absent but presumably would have voted for it.

It is not clear where Jaché Adams, Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch, Wayne Caines, Zane DeSilva, Curtis Dickinson, Christopher Famous, Wayne Furbert, Renée Ming and Anthony Richardson stand. Their voters deserve to know.

Regardless of that, it is not too late for the Government and Government House to avoid a collision. As with the BVI, it must be possible for both sides to sit down and negotiate a compromise that could satisfy Britain’s treaty obligations and the Bermuda Government’s democratic right to organise a legal cannabis regime.

The world is tragically seeing what happens when one individual refuses to seek a middle ground. There is no need for Bermuda to follow suit.

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Published March 30, 2022 at 7:33 am (Updated March 30, 2022 at 7:33 am)

Cannabis law not worth a constitutional crisis

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