Cannabis legislation passes 18-6, setting up constitutional face-off
It will be legal to grow and sell cannabis – if controversial legislation passed in the House of Assembly yesterday gets Royal Assent from the Governor.
The Cannabis Licensing Act 2022 would create a regulated framework for growth and sale of the drug.
A series of licences would be available through a licensing authority, which will allow people to not only possess more of the drug, but also to grow, harvest, sell, and export it.
The Bill was introduced by Walter Roban, the minister for home affairs, who was standing in for Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General.
Mr Roban, in a repeat of the speech that Ms Simmons delivered in the House a year ago, said that the illegality of cannabis was “an unjust colonial legacy” and evidence of “systemic racialised disparities” where Black people were criminalised by a White oligarchy.
He added that changes to the law were “long overdue”.
Mr Roban said: “We need radical new thinking – increasingly legalisation is not that radical at all.”
He added that public consultation had demonstrated “an overwhelming appetite for changes in our cannabis laws – the public accepts there should be changes to the regime”.
It is illegal to be in possession of more than seven grams of the drug at present.
But smoking cannabis in public will still be outlawed except in designated shops and it will also be illegal to sell the drug to anyone under the age of 21.
The Act was passed in the House of Assembly in February, 2021, but voted down in the Senate, which forced the Government to put the legislation on hold for a year.
The legalisation legislation was rejected by the Senate last year but it cannot do so again.
Rena Lalgie, the Governor, has made it clear legalisation of cannabis for recreational use was not allowed under the UK’s international obligations.
But Mr Burt has warned that if the Act did not get Royal Assent it would “destroy” Bermuda’s relationship with Britain.
Mr Roban admitted that the legal changes could cause friction with the United Kingdom.
But he added: “That is the type of trouble this Government is not afraid of.
“The totality of the proposed legislation provides for better effective regulatory control to displace the illicit market and full economic access at a time when families are suffering and looking for new economic opportunities.
“It will provide the greatest good for the greatest number.”
Scott Pearman, the One Bermuda Alliance shadow legal affairs minister, questioned why the Government had not made any changes to the Bill that was tabled last year.
He said: “Nothing has changed and that gives the impression that the Government is not listening, because there are serious problems with this Bill, highlighted by third sector, the Opposition, and the Bermudian people.
“This Government has had a year to think about this. Why do we not see any changes?
Mr Pearman emphasised that the OBA was "supportive of personal liberty".
But he added: "The Opposition very much agrees it's unhelpful to punish people criminally for cannabis use“.
He claimed that the Bill was "ultimately about money" and "corporate cannabis", which would put the industry in the hands of a few.
Mr Pearman predicted that a black market in cannabis would “thrive”.
He also questioned why there were no funds earmarked for counselling people who became addicts.
He said: “Drugs do major damage to human beings. I have family members who are no longer alive today because of addiction.”
Derrick Burgess, a veteran Progressive Labour Party MP and the Deputy Speaker, said he opposed the reform.
He said: I’ve been against this from the start for the reasons I stipulated.“
Mr Burgess added that he did not object to adults making personal choices.
But he asked: “How do we protect our children? If we can’t protect them I will always have a problem.
“We already can’t protect them from alcohol – why add this to the list?”
But Diallo Rabain, the Minister of Education, insisted that the Bill was “solid”.
He said: “It has the potential to create employment, it has the potential to create an industry that’s currently illegal and underground, it has the ability to improve what we currently have in Bermuda.”
Craig Cannonier, the One Bermuda Alliance shadow minister for works and engineering and tourism, highlighted concerns he had heard from someone who worked in rehabilitation.
He said they included the fear that the legislation would “send a message to our already struggling addicted youth population that smoking weed is a norm in our society and should be embraced”.
Mr Cannonier added that another concern was that the island did not have a “strong track record” in management of the sale of alcohol to minors and it was expected that problems would increase with greater access to cannabis.
Cole Simons, the Opposition leader, said it was irresponsible to pass economic empowerment legislation when “by-products” included an increase in road accidents and potential effects on academic achievement.
David Burt, the Premier, highlighted that one of the Bill’s principles was that the cannabis industry fell under the “special programme” section of the Human Rights Act.
He explained that meant it was designed to “assist a group of person to achieve equal economic opportunity”.
Mr Burt added that the Bermuda Monetary Authority had made some progress on how banking would be affected in a legal cannabis industry.
The bill was approved by 18 votes to six, and all six OBA MPs voted against it.
The bill will go to the Upper House next week and will be passed because senators can only veto legislation once.
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