What does it take to grow a thriving legal cannabis industry, with a focus on equity, in the Caribbean?
Activists and potential investors based in Trinidad and Tobago are hoping that its government decides that those factors include high local participation, financial assistance for small farmers, and limits on foreign involvement in the domestic industry, particularly in the area of cultivation.
Those hopes hinge on changes to the Cannabis Control Bill, which will establish the legislative framework for Trinidad and Tobago’s Cannabis Licensing Authority—the body that will be charged with directing the future industry. The Authority will be able to award licenses for those hoping to grow and sell, and import and export, among other activities, for “medicinal, therapeutic or scientific purposes” and for “religious purposes.”
The legislation, first published just under a year ago by the country’s Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi, is now with a Joint Select Committee of the country’s Parliament. The Committee, formally established in November after members from the country’s House of Representative and Senate were named to it, held one of its final planning meetings last month where it began a clause-by-clause review of the Bill with the country’s Chief Parliamentary Counsel. The committee is mandated to deliver its report on the Bill by December 31.
Once the report is delivered, the Bill will be amended accordingly ahead of a final vote in Parliament. Stakeholders can submit comments while the Committee prepares the report, and dozens have already done so.
Stakeholders are watching this date closely. Debate on the Cannabis Control Bill has lagged due to disagreement on its details, the country’s general elections in August, and measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic enacted in March. The rollout of cannabis decriminalization, via amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Bill, a piece of legislation that was introduced simultaneously last year, has also been confusing. As Cannabis Wire previously reported, while arrests have declined, illegal crop cultivation has risen. These factors have made it more urgent for the Bill to clear up what the cannabis landscape will look like.
Those in support of a robust cannabis industry are hoping that the significant impact that the pandemic has had on the country’s economy will put pressure on the government to move more quickly on legalization.
The key suggestion from stakeholders , a diverse coalition from the country’s First People population to those currently involved in unregulated cultivation, is regarding foreign ownership. Currently, the Bill allows non-citizens—of Trinidad or of any of the Caribbean nations that are part of CARICOM—to own up to 70 percent of an entity that applies for a cultivator, processor, retailer, transporter, importer, or exporter license, with no ownership limit on research and development or laboratory licenses. Those stakeholders would like to see that percentage reduced, a concern that has gone unaddressed by legislators.
During the election campaign, which saw his party return to government, Clarence Rambharat, the country’s Minister of Agriculture, spoke about the importance of community development and a diverse industry that allows locals to participate.
“We need to avoid monopolies. We need to avoid the case of the same investor through multiple companies controlling the industry, and we need to create a level of participation that allows for those with capital and those with other skills that could provide and contribute to the industry,” Rambharat explained.
He admitted, however, the commercial aspects of the industry haven’t been fully considered.
“Those are things that we haven’t fleshed out as yet, and when that time comes, I have to make sure I represent the interests of this community and all other communities that are the ones that are going to be affected by it,” he said.
Activists favouring stronger local representation want to have limits similar to Jamaica, which restricts foreign ownership in cannabis companies to 49%. These provisions will give local shareholders greater control over the budding industry, according to its supporters. This step, they contend, will protect the industry from future shocks in the global market—such as those last year that caused several Canadian cannabis companies to divest from the region in an effort to save cash—while creating more domestic employment and investment opportunities in the short term.
“The resumption of discussion on legislation is necessary and timely, given the country’s economic and socioeconomic outlook due to the pandemic,” Nazma Muller, a Trinidadian cannabis legalization activist, told Cannabis Wire. “One of the key points for us,” Muller said, is “to have the necessary amendments made to the legislation to include smaller cultivation and processing licenses, along with limiting external interest.”
Jamaica, Muller explained, saw foreign investors flock to the island at the start of the industry due to cheap licenses and land permits. Since then, Jamaican regulators have implemented more transitional and small licenses, which cost under $1,000, specifically aimed at indigenous farmers.
“That’s a lesson we can learn from,” said Muller, who is also leading an initiative to unionize indigenous cannabis farmers.
Securing indeginous rights through policy is critical to the development of an equitable cannabis industry in Trinidad and Tobago, Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, Dean of the Faculty of Law at University of the West Indies, told Cannabis Wire. According to Antoine, who is also the former chair of the CARICOM Commission on cannabis, the idea of restorative justice should be one of the pillars as policy and lawmakers work to form the region’s cannabis industry.
“We have already decriminalized cannabis, and legislation is going to be passed for an industry,” Antoine told Cannabis Wire. “One of the recommendations in our report for the CARICOM Regional Commission on Cannabis was to ensure the traditional farmer would have some say in the cannabis industry and be given the assistance to do so.”
Antoine added that regulators in Caribbean nations should learn from each other as different regions change cannabis policies.
According to Antoine, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, which has earmarked 200 acres of land to be distributed to small farmers, has led the region in terms of creating “pathways” for an equitable industry.
Kevin Edmonds, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Department of International Development Studies whose work has focused on approaches the Caribbean should take to cannabis decriminalization and taxation, agreed with Antoine. Edmonds told Cannabis Wire that Jamaica offers other lessons learned, with a major one being that delays in implementation of cannabis rules can significantly impact the development of the industry.
“Jamaica has seen that the failure to put forward clear regulations in a timely manner can backfire on the industry, so Trinidad and Tobago should take note,” Edmonds explained.
Ideally, according to Edmonds, the best way to find a balance between restorative justice for indigenous communities and traditional farmers and the development of a thriving industry would be for the government to set tax policy and have the Cannabis Licensing Authority develop proposals “where the tax revenues would go towards restorative justice programs, whereby those previously punished and demonized would benefit.”