Governor reserves assent on cannabis legalisation Bill
A decision by Rena Lalgie, the Governor, to reserve assent on the Government’s controversial flagship cannabis legislation plunged Bermuda into uncharted constitutional waters yesterday.
But the Governor urged Bermuda officials to work with the British Government to find a compromise in comments which seemed to suggest she was trying to avoid a constitutional crisis.
David Burt, the Premier, has previously stated that if the move to legalise consumption and production of the drug was not granted Royal Assent it would “destroy” relations with London.
The Governor said in a statement that the Cannabis Licensing Act 2022 appeared to her to be “inconsistent” with what she understood to be obligations held by the UK and Bermuda under UN Conventions.
She added: “I therefore have no choice but to reserve Assent of the Bill under Section 35 (2) of Constitution and to notify the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs.”
Ms Lalgie said: “I hope that Bermudian officials will work together with UK officials to find a way forward – one that does not result in life changing criminal records for users of small amounts of cannabis and unlocks commercial opportunities, whilst maintaining Bermuda’s excellent reputation for upholding the rule of law.”
Reserving Assent, stops short of refusing Assent, and The Governor added: “The UK has supported, and is currently assisting, some of the Crown Dependencies and other Overseas Territories to develop a way which is compliant with the relevant conventions.”
In a muted response, almost 24 hours after the Governor’s announcement, a Government spokeswoman said: “We have received the correspondence from the Governor regarding her decision to reserve Assent of the Cannabis Licensing Bill 2022, pursuant Section 35 (2) of Constitution, and to notify the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, of such decision.
“We await the position of the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs regarding this matter.”
The Cannabis Licensing Act passed Parliament on March 30, but the more than month-long delay in it being sent to the Governor for consideration was branded “unusual” by One Bermuda Alliance former premier Craig Cannonier, who said he heard behind the scenes negations with London were taking place on the matter.
A Cabinet Minister denied the claim.
The Opposition One Bermuda Alliance said it was no surprise that the Governor had reserved Royal Assent om the cannabis Bill.
And Scott Pearman, Shadow Minister for Home Affairs & Legal Affairs, agains questioned whether David Burt, the Premier, had always intended the Bill to fail.
He said: “Just over two weeks ago the Opposition was asked to comment on the likelihood of the Premier Burt’s flagship Cannabis Bill becoming law.
“At that time we said this: ‘Given the UK’s international convention obligations, there must be a high likelihood that the Governor will not grant Royal Assent – so this Bill will not likely become law.’ ”
He added: “Today, the Governor has indicated that she is reserving the UK’s position, rather than rejecting the Bill at this stage.
“We also asked at that time: was it Premier Burt’s intention to have this Bill fail from the start?“
Mr Pearman noted that almost half of the PLP’s MPs did not vote for the Bill and it was rejected twice by the Senate.
He added: “The Premier has been well aware of the UK’s Treaty Obligations throughout. His own Attorney-General pointed out the treaty obligations in Parliament when the Bill was debated the first time in February 2021.
“The Premier then stated publicly in November 2021 that he had no intention of tailoring his Bill to satisfy the UK’s conventions obligations. So it was his choice to steam ahead as he did rather than seek compromise.
“It should really come as no surprise to anyone that Royal Assent has yet to be granted on this Bill. And if it is ultimately withheld, that should not surprise Premier Burt either.”
The Governor and Mr Burt have appeared to be on a collision course over the emotive issue for some months.
In comments to The Royal Gazette last winter, Ms Lalgie strongly signalled that it would be likely she would be unable to give the proposed laws Royal Assent as they do not comply with British international treaty obligations.
The OBA has claimed that the PLP pro-cannabis liberalisation move was in reality a “smokescreen” for a push towards independence.
A spokeswoman for the Governor had told The Royal Gazette in recent months that British officials were prepared to discuss the issues around the cannabis Bill with ministers.
After being rejected by the Senate last year, the Bill returned to Parliament in February and passed the House of Assembly 18-6.
A dozen PLP MPs - 40 per cent - failed to vote for the Bill, though some of them were overseas at the time.
The legislation was tied in the Senate 5-5, but the Upper House no longer had the power to block it.
Mr Burt said after meeting British officials in London in November: “It was critical to make it clear that there is no intention by the Government of Bermuda to amend the current legislation to conform to the 60-year-old convention that allows cannabis supply for medicinal purposes only.
“The overall intent of the legislation is clear and it enjoys the support of the Bermuda electorate, which was confirmed at the last general election.”
The Government admitted last year that its cannabis plans went beyond the limits of international conventions on drugs, which the UK has signed up to.
The legislation is not in line with the UK’s international obligations under the UN’s 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
• UPDATE: This article has been updated to include a comment from the Government.