Government suffers cannabis law defeat
A controversial law to legalise cannabis will be sent back to the House of Assembly after Senators voted against the bill yesterday afternoon.
The Cannabis Licensing Act, which sets out a regulatory framework for growing, selling, and using the drug, was passed by MPs two weeks ago.
But senators rejected the legislation by six votes to five in the Upper House, handing a major defeat to the Progressive Labour Party just months after it was re-elected in October with an historic 24-seat majority.
All three independent senators and three One Bermuda Alliance senators voted the bill down – giving the ‘nays’ the majority against five Government senators’ “ayes”.
Today, Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General, who tabled the Bill in the House of Assembly two weeks ago, criticised senators who had voted against it.
She said Government will press forward with the Bill despite the setback, and said the naysayers had gone against the wishes of the country.
She said: “Yesterday the Cannabis Licensing Bill 2021, which was developed after the most extensive public consultation exercise in recent memory, was defeated in the Senate after being approved by the people’s elected representatives in the House of Assembly.
"Public support for this progressive initiative cannot be ignored, notwithstanding the rejection of the Bill by the Opposition senators and the senators appointed by the Governor.
"The Government will not be deterred from taking the bold steps necessary to ensure economic opportunity for marginalised groups, appropriate safeguards, and effective prevention education associated with the proposed regulated cannabis licensing regime.
"What this Government will not do is to allow the status quo, which does not reflect the people’s wishes, to remain – we will continue to press on."
The Progressive Labour Party last night also condemned the OBA and the Independent senators, alleging they had “voted against the will of the Bermudian voter and stood against jobs and opportunities for Bermudians”.
The PLP also questioned the island’s democratic process, claiming that Government plans had been stymied by unelected officials “appointed by an unelected, unaccountable Governor”.
“The cannabis reform they opposed would have further reduced the criminalisation of Bermudians and created jobs and opportunities for Bermudians,” the party said in a statement.
“Now, Bermudians are forced to wait for entrepreneurial opportunities in agriculture, transport, research, manufacturing, and the creation of health products and consumables.
“The Cannabis Reform Bill rejected by the OBA and the Governor's senators would have meant additional revenue for the Government – revenue for social programmes, scholarships, and more.
“It is unfortunate that in the 21st Century that jobs and opportunities as well as the will of so many Bermudians can be blocked by a politically rejected Opposition and Independent senators appointed by an unelected, unaccountable Governor.”
The OBA hit back, saying that the “deeply flawed” bill was rightly rejected because it “failed to address important concerns from the community“.
A joint statement issued by all three OBA senators said: “Cannabis is a complicated issue that requires thoughtful solutions, something the bill severely lacked.
“There are many who are passionate about cannabis, both for and against. But the bill in its current form was not the answer. It left too many unanswered questions and needs more time and thought.
“The Senate vote shows there are many Bermudian voices not being heard by the Government. Even within the PLP ranks there are many who recognised privately the numerous flaws in this bill. They must share these legitimate concerns publicly and put island before party.”
PLP backbenchers were given a free vote in the House of Assembly after a number expressed opposition to the bill. But no roll call vote was taken in the House.
The bill will now be sent back to the House of Assembly. If it is unchanged, it must be approved by the Senate in 12 months’ time.
If the bill is amended by the House in any way, Senators would be able to reject it again.
The vote means a potential confrontation with Governor Rena Lalgie has been at least temporarily averted. Ms Lalgie had signalled she would not be able to sign the legislation because it would breach the United Kingdom’s drug interdiction treaty obligations.
The result is only the second time the PLP has lost a vote under David Burt’s leadership.
Two years ago the Senate voted against Government plans to abolish the Hamilton and St George’s corporations and replace them with quangos.
In that instance, the Opposition also got the backing of all three Independent senators to have the bill rejected by six votes to five.
Requests for comment from Mr Burt and Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General, were not returned by press time last night.
Joan Dillas-Wright, the Senate president, closed today’s voting with the decisive decision.
Joan Dillas-Wright, Senate president: No
Michelle Simmons, Senate vice-president: No
John Wight, independent senator: No
Ernest Peets, Government senate leader: Yes
Owen Darrell, Government senator: Yes
Arianna Hodgson, Government senator: Yes
Curtis Richardson, Government senator: Yes
Lindsay Simmons, Government senator: Yes
Ben Smith, Opposition senate leader: No
Marcus Jones, Opposition senator: No
Robin Tucker, Opposition senator: No
During the debate Ms Dillas-Wright spoke of her work in the field of addiction and medicine.
The former hospital chief executive told the Senate: “I can tell you that even approaching coming today to have this debate on this topic, doctors tell me they have not been informed – they were not consulted.
“Counsellors tell me they have not been involved in the decision. I am surprised, taken aback. I had been told there was broad consultation.”
Ms Dillas Wright added that she had “a major concern about our young people, our children, and so I will say to you while I appreciate what the Government would like to do with this bill today, the Cannabis Licensing Act is about creating another pillar in this island and not speaking about the possible deleterious effects”.
The two other Independent senators – Michelle Simmons and John Wight – also gave passionate speeches during the debate.
Mrs Simmons said legalisation would put a strain on “woefully inadequate” drug prevention services, while Mr White questioned the financial benefits of the Bill touted by Government.
“The time to put values ahead of politics is now,” he said.