There has been a lot of talk about cannabis in the US Virgin Islands. Cannabis tax and fee revenues have been pitched as a salve for everything from its frail Government Employees Retirement System (GERS) to its failing infrastructure.
Yet, while the Medicinal Cannabis Patient Care Act was signed into law two years ago, critical questions about its implementation are only now getting addressed. Governor Albert Bryan Jr. has pushed this Act as a vital first step toward generating millions in revenue via a combination of taxes and fees, and, eventually, the passage of a bill to legalize cannabis for adult use.
On February 5, the Virgin Island Cannabis Advisory Board (VICAB), which was created by the Act, held its first virtual town hall with members of the public. The conversation made clear that concrete answers are in short supply and legal medical cannabis remains a distant reality.
“Part of the challenge we have had in the past is that we haven’t had a quorum to be able to vote on rules or make key decisions,” Miguel Tricoche, the Board’s chair, told residents during the town hall, which was held via Zoom. “Now that we do, we are all in on making sure that there is progress on drafting rules and regulations, sooner rather than later.”
As Tricoche pointed out during his response, the Board only held its first formal meeting last month, on January 28, due to a lack of a quorum, and it currently only has six members, although the legislation that created it recommends eleven. Five other members are still awaiting nominations from Governor Bryan, while the appointment of a sixth member, former Senator Positive Nelson, took place in June 2020.
One attendee, Elijah Jones, the director of a software company, asked about the timeline for draft regulations for the industry, and for accepting business license applications.
“We don’t have a specific timeline,” Tricoche told Jones. “We are working on building that framework in addition to hiring an executive director, who will do this as it is a part of his or her duties.”
According to Tricoche, efforts to fill the vacancy are underway and a full job description will be listed on the VICAB’s website when it is launched. If it goes unfilled, however, he explained that the Board would start the process of accepting license applications from those hoping to supply cannabis or to perform other services, and it will publicly share who has applied and for which licenses.
The goal, he said, is to allow local entrepreneurs, companies, and investors to have a high degree of participation in the industry. Once draft regulations are finalized, the board will have a forum for public feedback over a 30 to 60 day period.
“We are aiming for it to be as much local as it can possibly be. We are certainly encouraging locals, when the process starts, to apply and to get their voices heard. This will then give us, the board, the opportunity to vet who is the best candidate whether it is local or international.”
Nelson, who has been placed on the Board as the Department of Agriculture’s representative, pointed out that the Board is tailoring regulations to match the capacity of local applicants.
The ability of the board, as currently constituted, to execute some of its duties is limited, however. Of the five members still to be nominated by the Governor and approved by the Senate are an agriculturalist, an economist, a representative of the University of the Virgin Islands, and a pharmacist, who is meant to oversee training and outreach.
“Before any prescriptions can be written or operations started, we will need to have the physicians on board,” explained Catherine Kean, a doctor, who serves vice-chair of the Board. “Prior to talking about the business end, we need to get the physicians qualified.”
Attendees were reminded that draft regulations would have to go through the federal government for review. Given the pace of the work done to-date, and the pending reintroduction of the contentious Virgin Islands Cannabis Use Act, which would allow any resident or visitor age twenty-one or older to purchase and consume cannabis, the Board, which is limited both in numbers and technical capacity, faces a tall order. Some Virgin Island lawmakers, such as Senator Janelle Sarauw, have even predicated support for the Governor’s adult use proposal on the rollout of the medical program.
Last year, Sarauw told Cannabis Wire she had reservations about rushing implementation of adult use cannabis regulations, citing the government’s delays in implementing the medical cannabis regime. She wants to slow the process down, Sarauw added, explaining she isn’t against the adult use legislation, but prefers for the medical program to be implemented before work is done on an adult use bill. Sarauw is due to host a forum titled “Let’s Talk Cannabis,” dealing with issues related to the medical cannabis program, later this month.
The adult use bill was nearly passed during the final session of the 33rd Legislature. However, a series of amendments and votes derailed the measure, which had been pitched as a part of revenue backed bonds to save GERS, which covers pensions on the islands of Saint Croix, Saint Thomas, and Saint John. Other developments are on the way as well: the territory recently issued its first hemp production license, and, post-pandemic, the cannabis industry overall has been identified as one of the key potential pathways to rehabilitate the territory’s economy and to create jobs.
Two years on, however, jobs and tax revenue still appear distant.