The long road to legalisation
The drive for a regulated cannabis industry in Bermuda, which appeared to build into an open feud between the Bermuda and UK governments last night, already comes with a fraught history.
Legalising the drug is a key Progressive Labour Party pledge – with cannabis, at present, still illegal, albeit partially decriminalised.
In 2010, under calls from within the party ranks for cannabis to be decriminalised by the PLP Government, former premier Ewart Brown rejected the idea, saying the island had more pressing issues to deal with.
Three years later, with the PLP in Opposition and the One Bermuda Alliance in power, party leader Marc Bean called for a “mature, non-partisan” discussion on the legal status of cannabis.
In 2013, the OBA’s youth wing held an open forum on marijuana reform.
But the new administration moved with caution on the issue.
Later that year, an independent group dubbed the Cannabis Reform Collaborative was tasked by Michael Dunkley, then the OBA national security minister, with drawing up a report on the pros and cons of relaxing laws on the drug.
The OBA did not support legalising cannabis, although the PLP in Opposition called for possession of up to 20 grams of the drug to be decriminalised.
It was reported in June 2014 that the CRC’s surveys showed widespread public support for medicinal cannabis.
The report also favoured decriminalisation for personal use and the eventual legalisation of the drug.
In December 2014, the Cannabinoid Pharmaceutical Products Act 2014 passed the Senate, but permitted only the use of certain medicines containing cannabis-derived drugs.
The OBA announced a “a diversion from prosecution” policy in 2015, with a police caution for simple possession of cannabis and the introduction of fixed penalties for minor offences.
In March 2016, the Senate approved amendments to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act allowing the Director of Public Prosecutions to provide guidance to any officer ranked as inspector or higher on issuing cautions as an alternative to a formal prosecution in the courts.
That same year, the CRC called for more action on its proposals.
The PLP regained the Government in the 2017 General Election, and the new administration signalled it would move forward on decriminalisation.
The Government followed through, decriminalising possession of seven grams or less of the drug in December 2017.
Cannabis remained, and still remains, illegal.
Later that year, David Burt, the Premier, announced that the Government would move ahead on cannabis cultivation for medical reasons – which was included in the 2018 Throne Speech, and the 2019-20 Budget.
Legislation was brought to the Senate in December 2019 by Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General.
Ms Simmons then announced the move for full legalisation in February 2020.
Legislators that August greenlit quashing convictions for small amounts of cannabis in the Expungement of Convictions Act.
Legalising cannabis for an industry on the island was a major pledge in the PLP’s platform for the October 2020 General Election, in which the party retained Government by a landslide.
The legislation for legal cannabis passed in the House of Assembly in February 2021, although some government MPs failed to back it.
But it got blocked by the Senate, where three independent senators and three OBA senators voted the Bill down.
Rena Lalgie, the Governor, signalled that legalisation of recreational cannabis was not permitted under Britain’s international obligations.
It raised the spectre of a standoff with Britain as it appeared the legislation would not get royal assent.
The sticking point was its conflict with the UK’s international obligations under the UN’s 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
The Cannabis Licensing Bill passed Parliament on March 30, 2022 – but there was a delay in presenting the legislation to Government House.
Ms Lalgie announced her decision to reserve assent on the legislation in May.
Mr Burt countered that the Government had taken its own legal advice, and that the cannabis regulations should be approved.
The Premier said the blocking of the legislation would throw the island’s reputation with Britain into jeopardy.
But yesterday Ms Lalgie formally announced she had been “instructed” by the UK Government not to give royal assent.