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March 2021: Cannabis stand-off with UK prolonged by Senate block on liberalisation of law

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The Government’s plans to legalise and regulate the sale of cannabis in Bermuda struck a major roadblock in March after legislation was rejected by the Senate – which delayed a potential stand-off with the UK.

The Cannabis Licensing Act, which set out a regulatory framework for growth, sale, and use of the drug, was passed by MPs in February despite resistance.

Some Progressive Labour Party backbenchers also spoke out against the legislation in the House of Assembly, but a roll call vote was not held.

But senators rejected the legislation by six votes to five in the Upper House on March 4 – a major defeat for the PLP just months after it was re-elected with a record 24-seat majority.

The three independent senators and three One Bermuda Alliance senators voted the bill down – giving the ‘nays’ the majority against five Government senators’ “ayes”.

But the rejection of the legislation by the senate did not mean that the legislation would not proceed.

The Act can be brought back to the House of Assembly again after 12 months without amendment and – if passed – can bypass the Senate.

But concerns have been raised over whether the legislation would be granted Royal Assent even if approved again by the House as it could be in conflict with the UK’s international obligations under the UN’s 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Rena Lalgie, the Governor, said legalisation of cannabis for purposes other than medicinal and scientific use, or some industrial procedures, was not permitted under the convention.

A spokeswoman for the Governor said that UK officials were prepared to discuss the issue with ministers.

But she insisted: “The relevant international obligations permit, subject to necessary controls, legalisation of cannabis for medicinal and scientific purposes, and for certain industrial purposes.

“Legalisation of cannabis for other purposes is not permitted, however, decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of cannabis is possible within the conventions.”

David Burt, the Premier, maintained that the Cannabis Licensing Act could and should be given the green light.

Mr Burt said: “The Government took external legal advice with regard to international treaties and regulations. The Government is not going to put forward something that they do not believe can conform and comply with that.

“If our regulations were modelled after what is in place in Canada – another realm of the Commonwealth where the Queen serves as head of state – and those are acceptable there, I cannot possibly imagine why they would not be acceptable here.”

Mr Burt confirmed in November that the Government would bring the Cannabis Licensing Act back to the House unchanged and warned that if it did not get Royal Assent it would “destroy” Bermuda’s relationship with the UK.

He said after recent London meetings with British ministers and leaders from other Overseas Territories: “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.

“Many countries, such as Canada, that allow regulated supply of cannabis for non-medicinal purposes, are signatories to that convention.

“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.”

But campaigners for legal changes on cannabis won one victory this year – people convicted of minor drug offences could apply from March to have their criminal records wiped clean.

An expungement order would erase criminal conviction records for the offence of possession of seven grams or less of cannabis, for offences committed before December 20, 2017, when possession of that amount was decriminalised.

Cannabis plant
David Burt, the Premier (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)
Governor Rena Lalgie (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

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Published December 31, 2021 at 7:58 am (Updated December 31, 2021 at 9:48 am)

March 2021: Cannabis stand-off with UK prolonged by Senate block on liberalisation of law

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