If the words of Bermuda Premier David Burt are to be believed, his government is prepared to lock horns with the United Kingdom after lawmakers in the British Overseas Territory’s House of Assembly approved legislation just before midnight on Friday to legalize cannabis for adult use.
If the bill passes in the Senate, where it’s set to be debated in the coming days, Bermuda would be one step away from creating the Caribbean’s first adult-use market for cannabis. The final step would, however, require the signature of Bermuda’s governor, who, according to Bermuda’s Constitution, is required to assent to all legislation before it can be formally adopted. In the British Virgin Islands, which has attempted to advance more incremental cannabis reforms, that approval has been withheld.
“If Her Majesty’s representative in Bermuda doesn’t give assent to something that has been passed lawfully and legally under this local government,” Burt said on Friday, referring to Rena Lalgie, the United Kingdom-appointed Governor for Bermuda, “this will destroy the relationship that we have with the United Kingdom.”
Burt’s words came as the final act in a contentious 8-hour debate, which eventually saw the House pass the Cannabis Licensing Act 2020, paving the way for anyone 21 or older to possess and purchase up to seven grams of cannabis from retailers approved by the proposed Cannabis Licensing Authority. It also allows anyone 21 or older to lawfully obtain, from those retailers, cannabis plant material, medicinal cannabis, and cannabis-infused food products.
In the relationship between the United Kingdom and its overseas territories in the Caribbean, cannabis has emerged as a point of contention. All of its territories in the Caribbean—Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and Turks and Caicos Islands—have joined in on the wider trend of cannabis reform by considering, debating, or passing related legislation.
While much of the activity has focused on decriminalization or medical use, some territories, particularly Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands, have gone further by considering adult use cannabis. In the British Virgin Islands, this has caused friction between the elected government and the United Kingdom-appointed Governor, Augustus Jaspert, who has refused to approve the British Virgin Islands’ Cannabis Licencing Act and amendments to the existing Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act. Together, this legislation would decriminalize cannabis possession, establish a medical cannabis industry, and, while it’s less explicit in its adult use provisions than Bermuda’s legislation, allow for anyone over the age of eighteen to possess up to one gram of cannabis “for medicinal or therapeutic use,” without requiring medical documentation.
“It can’t be that locally elected governments lay out their election manifestos, go to the polls, have broad public support, have the majority of the population supporting the direction of the country, and for someone who represents people 3,000 miles away to tell the country, ‘no, you cannot,’” Burt said, adding that he would resist any attempt to hinder the development of Bermuda’s cannabis industry.
“If our regime is modeled after Canada, another country where Her Majesty serves as the Head of State, and they can be in non-compliance with an antiquated international policy, I ask why it can’t be the same for Her Majesty’s oldest colony of Bermuda,” Burt said. “What is the difference?”
Burt was responding to charges by Michael Dunkley, a member of the One Bermuda Alliance-led opposition, who said earlier in the debate that the Bermudian government had politicized the reforms.
“I don’t think this bill will get the Royal Assent,” Dunkley, a former Premier of the Territory and current Shadow Minister of Health, said. “If we were that serious about it, wouldn’t we frame a bill that would get Royal Assent?”
While Bermuda already removed criminal offenses for the possession of seven grams or less of cannabis just over three years ago, the bill goes further by removing cannabis from the list of controlled substances under the Territory’s Misuse of Drugs Act. The legislation would put Bermuda at odds with the Misuse of Drugs Act in the United Kingdom, where adult use of cannabis is illegal and the medical use of cannabis was only made legal in 2018.
During the debate, Kathy Lynn Simmons, Bermuda’s Attorney General and the Minister of Legal Affairs, called the continuation of cannabis prohibition in the Caribbean a part of an “unjust colonial legacy,” adding that there is clear evidence that “systemic racialized disparities” continue to exist.
“It is well known that the United Kingdom is already entangled in a diplomatic stalemate with the British Virgin Islands because of the refusal to assent to two cannabis-related bills,” said Simmons. “It is reported that the United Kingdom is withholding assent because they weren’t consulted on the proposal’s development, and to secure a memorandum of understanding granting the United Kingdom government a bargaining role in the Territory’s licensing.”
Simmons continued, “Should the United Kingdom’s government take a similar approach with Bermuda as what has happened with the British Virgin Islands, the government of Bermuda would have to reconsider its consent to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs,” a global drug control treaty. Simmons later added, “Defending Bermuda’s democratic policy position on cannabis on the international front is the type of trouble this government isn’t afraid of.”
Opposition lawmakers, however, remain unconvinced about the government’s motivations for proposing a bill that would see it clash with the United Kingdom’s Home Office.
“This bill is about money—cold, hard cash. It’s about corporate cannabis and commercialization of cannabis,” said Scott Pearman, the Opposition’s Shadow Minister for Legal Affairs. “In short, this is a bill about who controls and manages the supply of cannabis in Bermuda.”
“Leaving aside the money that will certainly be made by a select few, what are the benefits that the legislation would provide?” he said. “As things presently stand, this bill offers only one thing:the prospect of a whole lot of money in the hands of a few.”
Pearman added that Bermuda “deserves far better than the Government’s corporate cannabis bill,” citing the cost of licensing fees. For example, personal cultivation license applications come with the additional cost of a non-refundable fee of $250 and an annual fee of $500, while in other jurisdictions in the region, such as Trinidad and Tobago, no such licenses or fees are attached to personal cultivation.
The Cannabis Licensing Act 2020 establishes the Cannabis Licensing Authority to advise and consult with the government on the regulation of cannabis. It will also, according to its explanatory preamble, create licenses for the research, manufacture, transport, import, and export of cannabis.
The legislation also proposes to maintain a series of strict fines for offenses relating to possession above the legal limit or without the required licenses, and the use of cannabis in public spaces.
The Authority would also oversee the development of policy for cannabis industry banking, which is one critical part of the Government of Bermuda’s pitch to investors as it moves to develop its niche in the cannabis industry, and in the area of medical tourism.
The Cannabis Licensing Act 2020 will be debated next in the Senate, which is expected to take it up before it debates the territory’s annual budget.
Bermuda’s tourism-based economy has taken a significant hit over the last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to an 80 percent decline across all visitor categories and caused a near 10 percent decline in gross domestic product, according to Ministry of Finance estimates. The government of Bermuda, along with several other Caribbean territories, has included cannabis revenue from taxes and fees as part of a plan to accelerate a financial recovery.