The tone and tenor of the conversations around cannabis in the Caribbean have changed over the last year—from one of optimism to cautious strategy.
After blocking cannabis proposals and deriding the plant for decades, governments across the Caribbean have heralded the end of prohibition and have earmarked proceeds from the medical cannabis industry as a critical element in the region’s economic diversification. The shift has come due to a mixture of choice and circumstance, with the latter now emerging as the driving force.
While the region has been spared sizable death tolls during the pandemic, in large part, COVID-19 has forced leaders of local governments to try to reopen their economies during the deepest recession in more than fifty years as the region’s largest sector—tourism—struggles. Early estimates by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) indicate that total employment has been reduced by a minimum of nine percentage points in the Caribbean, compared to two percentage points in Latin America. Saint Lucia, the Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Kitts and Nevis will experience the largest declines in employment, all at over thirteen percentage points. The goods-producing economies of Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago have been slightly more fortunate.
Like other Caribbean leaders, Gaston Browne, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, has faced hard choices in the balancing of lives and livelihoods. Antigua and Barbuda’s economy has witnessed a near 14 percent contraction due to the pandemic, according to ECLAC. Browne, who is set to take over in July as the Chair of CARICOM, or Caribbean Community, the region’s fifteen-member economic bloc, says the last year has led him and his colleagues to rethink their plans for economic diversification and the region’s place in the budding global cannabis industry.
In Antigua and Barbuda, possession of up to fifteen grams of cannabis has been decriminalized since March of 2018 when the country amended its Misuse of Drugs Act. The passage of the amendments, which stopped short of enacting full adult-use provisions, came with an apology from Browne to members of the Rastafarian community, who wanted more robust reforms. Another piece of legislation titled the Cannabis Act, which was passed by the country’s Parliament in November of the same year, created the Antigua and Barbuda Medicinal Cannabis Authority. The body is responsible for regulating and licensing the cultivation, manufacture, processing, extraction, import, export, testing, research, distribution, and sale of medicinal cannabis and cannabis for sacramental purposes.
Cannabis Wire spoke with Browne ahead of July’s CARICOM Heads of Government meeting—the bloc’s main annual summit —about his plans for the cannabis industry in Antigua and Barbuda and the wider region, and other matters related to the industry. (This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)
Clydeen McDonald, Cannabis Wire: Economic diversification is a sensitive topic in the Caribbean, and has become even more important over the last year because of the impact the pandemic has had on tourism. Can you give us some of your thoughts on this area?
Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve been looking at the cannabis industry, we have been looking at even blockchain technology. We aren’t focusing so much on the crypto aspect of it, because that’s a very difficult space to regulate.
Cannabis Wire: You have identified medical cannabis as one of these industries you are looking at. That has been particularly challenging for many governments in the region. Can you identify some of the challenges Antigua and Barbuda and the region face?
Gaston Browne: Insofar as cannabis is concerned, the problem that we have now is how to bank the proceeds. It’s like different strokes for different folks: whereas in some states and in the United States, you can bank cannabis proceeds. But the correspondent banks in the US have indicated definitively to the corresponding banks here within the region that in order for them to maintain their corresponding bank relations, they shouldn’t accept cannabis deposits, as well as cryptocurrencies and gaming deposits. [Editor’s note: correspondent banks are banks in different jurisdictions that work together, and because cannabis remains federally illegal in the US, correspondent banks in other jurisdictions could risk their US banking relationships by handling cannabis proceeds.]
Cannabis Wire: You mentioned concerns that the Caribbean has faced with correspondent banking. Are there any examples of these issues at work beyond the cannabis industry?
Gaston Browne: Gaming. The United States is one of the largest gambling destinations in the world. As we know, they can’t approach gaming from the standpoint of morality. However, whereas you can bank gambling proceeds in the United States, regulators have taken the position that corresponding banks here can’t.
Cannabis Wire: Have there been any domestic solutions?
Gaston Browne: Well, luckily for us we own a domestic bank and we have said that, provided that the proceeds are in Eastern Caribbean dollars and they aren’t doing any foreign exchange or any remittances, that there could be carve outs to facilitate payments in Eastern Caribbean dollars.
Cannabis Wire: So what is the outlook for the industry in the region?
Gaston Browne: The countries that have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, including Canada, are able to satisfy their own demand. So the type of export possibilities that we initially thought may have existed, aren’t as lucrative or maybe don’t quite exist in the way we first anticipated. And there’s always a problem, as well, of moving cannabis across borders because it’s a restricted substance. We have to be very careful that we aren’t accused of violating our international obligations if we seek to move cannabis into certain [countries]. In any case, there has to be safe state collaboration, and, certainly, that isn’t something that we’re getting from the United States.
Cannabis Wire: You spoke about the need for state-to-state cooperation, is there a role for CARICOM to play here? Especially considering that these are all countries developing medical markets and legalizing cultivation more or less at the same time?
Gaston Browne,: I think we should start with state-by-state cooperation because it will give greater legitimacy to the sector. Again, we have to be careful in the sense that, I don’t know that we can establish a market for recreational cannabis because there are a number of treaties that make it prohibited, and then we are signatories to those treaties.
Cannabis Wire: Are you hoping for more in the area of state-to-state cooperation in the medical cannabis area then? Particularly as an alternative to exports to the United States or other territories?
Gaston Browne: Insofar as medicinal marijuana, I can see us establishing a state-to-state arrangement in which we can move products and develop some experience. That could also aid in the commencement of research as well, in which we can start to look at the medicinal value of cannabis and acquire data because that is one of the areas that is sadly lacking.
Cannabis Wire: Finding data that’s relevant to the region is a particularly difficult task. Are you making any headway in terms of research and development within the Caribbean?
Gaston Browne: The countries that have significant research capabilities, don’t have any regionally specific data, or let’s say they don’t have any legitimate data. We should, however, be working toward being in a position to develop a legitimate database and doing our own research. It would help in terms of further legitimizing the product—cannabis for medicinal purposes—at the same time we need to work on satisfying demand within the Caribbean region.