The cannabis industry in the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda is getting ready to roll, and with a twist—a public-private partnership that advocates hope can be a model for other nations in the Caribbean.
This month, two years after a vote to amend its Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act and adopt the country’s Cannabis Bill, which created the framework for the licensing and regulation of medical cannabis, legal cannabis cultivation is set to get underway in the country.
Last month, the Medicinal Cannabis Authority, which was created by the legislation, issued its first license to legally cultivate medical cannabis to GROW Antigua & Barbuda, a public-private partnership which comprises the government, the Rastafarian community, and private enterprise. GROW’s stakeholders are hoping to build the capacity to cultivate 26,1360 square feet (six acres) of cannabis across the country.
GROW’s hybrid ownership model—which attempts to strike a balance between social equity and industry strategy—grants Itopia Life, one of Jamaica’s largest domestic cannabis companies, a 51% stake in the integrated seed-to-sale company. Rastafari Food For Life, a company owned and incorporated by members of the Rastafarian community, will hold 25%, and the National Assets Management Company (NAMCO)—a state-owned company—24%. The venture represents the first time a government in the region has directly entered the industry as an asset holder and investor. And it goes beyond equity programs underway in Jamaica and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, where governments have encouraged the legal participation of indigenous and traditional cannabis cultivators, via targeted subsistence farming programs or amnesties, but without making investments.
According to GROW’s stakeholders, the initiative will tackle a key issue in the Caribbean: equality of opportunity in the cannabis industry. Although governments have warmed to the idea of the economic opportunities presented by its development, reform advocates and supporters have been left dissatisfied with the follow-through on reducing the barriers to enter the industry for low-income individuals and for the communities most harmed by the criminalization of cannabis.
Now, having become the joint recipients of Antigua and Barbuda’s first cannabis cultivation license, members of the representative group for the country’s Rastafarian community are hoping the model of GROW Antigua & Barbuda can be replicated and act as an example for granting equitable access to the industry in the region.
“It is monumental. This just isn’t about Antigua, it’s about the rights of Rastafarians across the Caribbean,” High Priest Bongo Selah, a community elder of the religious minority and a member of the Nyabinghi Theocracy Church, told Cannabis Wire. “This tripartite model isn’t only for us, it’s for everyone.”
According to the country’s prime minister, Gaston Browne, the partnership is being developed with the hope of obtaining long-term and sustainable profits in the local industry, but is emerging against the backdrop of uncertainty in the international market.
“The countries that have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, including Canada, are able to satisfy their own demand,” Browne told Cannabis Wire in an interview. “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.”
This reality has prompted calls for governments in the Caribbean to change their strategies for industry development. The Democratic National Alliance, for example, said in a statement in January that the current cannabis regulations, including six-figure (USD) business license costs, favor foreign applicants, while impeding entry for locals interested in the sector. While the fee was waived for GROW Antigua & Barbuda—as a form of reparations for Rastafarian groups—the Alliance argues that the fees should be reduced by 50% across the board, to open up industry access to more low-income individuals.
Responding to the criticisms, Lionel Hurst, the chief of staff in the Prime Minister’s office, said in January that the fees are “a fair way of ensuring that those who enter into the market have the resources to support the commercial use of cannabis in a medicinal form. Growing marijuana to create medicine is a rather intricate undertaking, and not many will have the capability of doing so.”
Broadly, Andrew Moody Stuart, co-founder of Itopia Life and a director of GROW, told Cannabis Wire that the regional industry needs to become much more efficient and integrated to see the full economic impact Caribbean governments hope to create.
“We need to quantify the Caribbean market. What size is it and what do we need to supply it?” Moody Stuart said. “At the very least we need to be able to trade technology and materials between islands.”
According to Moody Stuart, the high regulatory barrier to export highlights the need for the region to look inward. “If you look at Health Canada’s mandate, the only way you can import to Canada, or export in our case to Canada, is for research and development. In the United States, cannabis remains federally illegal. And if you go to Europe, you have to be certified by European Union good manufacturing practice standards.”
“The Caribbean doesn’t have those facilities,” said Moody Stuart. “The international export market doesn’t favor the region at the moment. We need to look at regional trade as a way of jumpstarting the industry.”
Researcher Kevin Edmonds, of the University of Toronto’s Department of International Development Studies, says that programs like GROW are a sign that regional governments are positioning their industries to focus on domestic endeavors in response to the highly insulated international markets. In the short term, he says, a domestically-focused industry is one of the few ways to create opportunities for indigenous cultivators and domestic investors.
Antigua and Barbuda’s tourism-based economy has taken a significant hit over the last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the region seeing a combined 65% drop in travel according to the World Travel & Tourism Council’s annual Economic Impact Report. In total, the impact COVID-19 had on the Caribbean’s Travel & Tourism sector was vast, wiping out $33.9 billion from the region’s economy. Antigua and Barbuda’s economy alone has seen a near 14 percent contraction due to the pandemic, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, with unemployment increasing by over thirteen percentage points.
The government of Antigua and Barbuda, along with several other Caribbean territories, has increasingly looked to cannabis revenue from taxes and fees as part of a plan to accelerate a financial recovery.
In addition to the license for GROW, the Medicinal Cannabis Authority says it is reviewing at least five other applications for licenses, valued at a total of over US$11 million. According to the Authority’s chairman, Daven Joseph, who spoke at a ceremony in June to open GROW’s cultivation facilities, “meaningful development of the industry” is projected to contribute at least 10 percent to Antigua and Barbuda’s economic output in the next five to ten years.