Crisis looms as Britain blocks cannabis legalisation
Bermuda is on the brink of a constitutional crisis after Britain blocked the Government’s flagship legislation to legalise the use and sale of cannabis.
In a landmark move, Rena Lalgie, the Governor, said yesterday she had been “instructed” by the UK’s foreign secretary to refuse to give royal assent to the Progressive Labour Party’s Cannabis Licensing Bill.
Ms Lalgie previously reserved assent on the legislation in May and called for dialogue between Hamilton and London on the matter.
David Burt, the Premier, said last year that if royal assent was not given to the Bill it would “destroy” relations between Bermuda and Britain.
Following months of tension over the legislation, Ms Lalgie announced the decision on the day Liz Truss was elevated from foreign secretary to prime minister.
The Government insisted it would push on with its initiative as voters had given the PLP a mandate to do so.
Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney General, appeared to put the Government on a collision course with London over the issue.
She said: “Disappointing, but not surprising, given the confines of our constitutional relationship with the UK government and their archaic interpretation of the narcotic conventions.
“The people of Bermuda have democratically expressed their desire for a regulated cannabis licensing regime, following the strong endorsement at the ballot box and an extensive public consultation process.
“The Government of Bermuda intends to continue to advance this initiative, within the full scope of its constitutional powers, in keeping with our 2020 general election platform commitment.”
Referring to her previous decision to reserve royal assent, the Governor stated: “I have now received an instruction, issued to me on Her Majesty’s behalf, not to assent to the Bill as drafted.
“The Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs concluded that the Bill, as currently drafted, is not consistent with obligations held by the UK and Bermuda under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances.”
Mrs Lalgie added: “I have informed the Premier and relayed the UK’s continued desire to work with Bermuda on reforms within the scope of our existing international obligations.”
Scott Pearman, One Bermuda Alliance shadow home affairs minister, said the legislation was “deeply flawed”.
He said: “In April, the opposition was asked to comment on the likelihood of 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.’
“With the UK’s clear and existing obligations, we also asked at that time: was it Premier Burt’s intention to have this Bill fail from the start?
“The Governor has indeed confirmed that the PLP Bill has been rejected.
“I would also respectfully remind the public that although this Bill was one of Premier Burt’s flagship initiatives, almost half of his PLP MPs did not vote for the Bill. The Bill was also twice defeated in the Senate.
“The opposition has consistently described this as a bad bill. It was deeply flawed - no matter what position you hold on the cannabis debate, this particular Bill was not for you.
“The Premier has been well aware of the UK’s treaty obligations throughout. His own attorney-general pointed out the UK’s 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 David Burt’s choice to steam ahead as he did, rather than seek consensus and compromise.
“It should come as no surprise to anyone that royal assent has not been granted on this Bill. And it should certainly not surprise Premier Burt.”
The OBA has insisted for some time that the PLP knew the Bill would not get royal assent and was hoping to use the matter as a wedge issue to push for independence.
A high ranking PLP figure dismissed such claims, telling The Royal Gazette: “I do not believe it is a push for Independence - we said we would push for cannabis legislation, and we did. If we were going to push for Independence, we would.”
Mr Burt has previously said: “If Her Majesty’s representative in Bermuda does not give assent to something that has been passed lawfully and legally under this local government, this will destroy the relationship we had with the United Kingdom.”
A Government spokeswoman declined to say whether the Premier stood over those views when asked by The Royal Gazette.
When the Governor withheld assent the UK foreign office dispatched a top civil servant to the island in late May, Paul Candler, Director of Overseas Territories, for discussions.
Ministers admitted last year that the PLP’s cannabis plans went beyond the limits of international conventions on drugs, to which Britain has signed up, and that the legislation was not in line with Britain’s obligations under the UN’s 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
The Bill passed the House of Assembly, however, 12 PLP MPs – 40 per cent of the party’s cohort – did not vote for it, although some were overseas at the time.
The move was then tied in the Senate, which in constitutional terms means it was defeated.
The Upper House blocked the Bill last year, but had no power to do so a second time. The matter was then sent to the Governor for consideration.