The government of Bermuda’s ambitious plan to end cannabis prohibition ended with a whimper rather than a bang on Wednesday after the legislation failed to pass the British overseas territory’s Senate. This came just weeks after Premier David Burt said he was prepared to lock horns with the United Kingdom on the issue of legalizing cannabis for adult use.
Passage and implementation of the Cannabis Licensing Bill 2020 would have positioned Bermuda to create the Caribbean’s first adult-use market for cannabis. Instead, it was defeated in a 6-5 vote. All of the Independent senators, including Joan Dillas-Wright, the Senate president, voted against the bill, joining members of the One Bermuda Alliance-led opposition to block its passage and referral to the territory’s United Kingdom-appointed Governor Rena Lalgie.
The vote comes as a blow to the Burt-led Progressive Labour Party (PLP) plan to develop a local industry around cannabis cultivation, with an eye toward global exports and financial services for the industry. The Party, which was re-elected to office in October with a historic 24 seat majority in the House of Assembly, pitched the reforms as a part of a broader economic package aimed at revitalizing Bermuda’s tourism-based economy.
“Let’s be clear, the One Bermuda Alliance (OBA) doesn’t oppose cannabis use. Today, Bermuda’s Senate rejected the PLP’s Cannabis Licensing Bill because the Bill itself failed to address important concerns from the community,” One Bermuda Alliance’s three senators—Robin Tucker, Ben Smith, and Marcus Jones—said in a statement shared with Cannabis Wire. “It was positive that the OBA Senators and Independent Senators came together to vote down this deeply flawed Bill. Cannabis is a complicated issue that requires thoughtful solutions, something the Bill severely lacked.”
Senator Dillas-Wright, who cast the tie-breaking vote during Wednesday’s four-hour-long debate, said that, in her opinion, the government hadn’t consulted broadly enough within the medical profession before bringing the bill up for a vote. According to Dillas-Wright, no language was included to expand the budget of the Territory’s regulatory and social services to cover the cost of implementing the proposal.
“Doctors tell me they haven’t been informed, they weren’t consulted. Counsellors tell me they haven’t been involved in the decision. I am surprised, taken aback,” Dillas-Wright, who served as a medical administrator before becoming a Senator, told members.
Although the Progressive Labour Party won the general election last October with the largest victory for one party since party politics began in Bermuda, winning 24 seats compared to the One Bermuda Alliance’s 12, the territory’s constitution doesn’t give the Party a majority in the Senate. According to Section 27 of the Territory’s constitution, only five senators are appointed under the discretion of the Premier or the party that wins a majority in the general election. Of the remaining six, three are appointed by the Opposition Leader and three are appointed by the territory’s United Kingdom-appointed Governor. This makes it near impossible to pass legislation without cross-party support.
“It is unfortunate, that in the 21st Century that jobs and opportunities, as well as the will of so many Bermudians, can be blocked by a politically rejected Opposition and Independent Senators appointed by an unelected, unaccountable Governor,” the governing Progressive Labour Party said in a statement shared with Cannabis Wire on Thursday.
“The cannabis reform they opposed would have further reduced the criminalization of Bermudians and created jobs and opportunities for Bermudians,” the release continued, echoing the words of Premier Burt in the House of Assembly debate last week.
The PLP aren’t the only ones perplexed by the reforms’ outright rejection in the Senate, however. Activists and healthcare professionals have also been left puzzled, especially since the scope of the reforms were only broadened due to public pressure.
“Although we had some concerns with the Act as presented, we are still disappointed in the possibility of delayed justice for those who have suffered consequences and continue to suffer consequences under the antiquated laws governing cannabis,” Kristin White, a founding member Social Justice Bermuda, told Cannabis Wire. “We are still hopeful that over the next year, we can work with the government to ensure equitable access to business entry.”
Kyjuan Brown, one of the few doctors that advocates for cannabis patients in Bermuda, echoed White’s point.
“I was completely taken off guard by the decision,” Brown told Cannabis Wire.
“The Cannabis Licensing Act would make it easier for everybody, including the medical patients,” Brown continued, noting that access is still an issue for patients under the medical cannabis program created after Bermuda’s Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that it should be allowed. “At the moment, we are still burdened with administration and processing times for the simplest aspects of the medical scheme.”
What happens next? Well, no one is quite sure. Late on Thursday, Kathy Lynn Simmons, the territory’s Attorney-General and Minister of Legal Affairs, said the government would continue to pursue the reforms.
“Public support for this progressive initiative cannot be ignored notwithstanding the rejection of the Bill by the Opposition Senators and the Senators appointed by the Governor,” Simmons said, highlighting the extensive public consultation that led to the development of the BIll.
“The Government will not be deterred from taking the bold steps necessary to ensure economic opportunity for marginalized groups, appropriate safeguards and effective prevention education associated with the proposed regulated cannabis licensing regime,” she continued, before signaling that another bill could be on its way to the Senate from the House of Assembly where the PLP holds a majority.