Monday’s General Elections in Saint Lucia could have major implications for cannabis in the Caribbean after the Saint Lucia Labour Party, which campaigned on passing the region’s most progressive cannabis reform proposal, claimed victory. The party, led by Philip Joseph Pierre, won thirteen of the seventeen Parliamentary constituencies contested in the election, defeating the United Workers Party led by outgoing Prime Minister Allen Chastanet.
Cannabis was front and center during the campaign. The region’s budding industry around the plant repeatedly cropped up as a central point of debate over the last year and, in particular, during the final weeks of the election campaign following the delivery of a report on the proposed reforms by a government-established Cannabis Commission. However, the government’s plan to draw up a bill that would follow the committee’s recommendation—allow for the decriminalization of cannabis possession along with legalization for medical and adult use—has stalled.
This has left Saint Lucia as a member of an ever-shrinking group of countries in the Caribbean that have yet to enact cannabis reforms, and voters may be getting impatient. According to Chastanet, who campaigned on passing legislation to establish the framework for “medicinal use and religious purposes” in his first 100 days of office, there is a need to strike a balance in the debate between adult-use advocates; those in favor of lighter reforms, such as the decriminalization of possession and legalization of “medical and religious-use”; and those against any reforms.
“We’ve been working very hard at this,” Chastanet told Cannabis Wire in a pre-election forum on July 22. “I think that there’s a fairly good consensus and acceptance on the medicinal aspect of it,” he explained, adding that the case for the religious use is also “pretty much accepted by everyone. That the Rastafari movement, to name one, has consistently used this as part of their religious ceremonies and we need to respect them in that regard.”
But that’s where agreement seems to end and the conflict starts. According to Chastanet, there is a need to better educate citizens on the difference between decriminalizing and legalizing cannabis because many are concerned about the post-legalization regulation and public health initiatives. “We’ve seen the mistakes that we’ve made with alcohol,” he said.
While Chastanet has stopped short on championing adult use, which he told Cannabis Wire later in the forum that he supports, Pierre, the incoming Prime Minister, is more bullish on the issue. His party committed to the development of “a medicinal and recreational cannabis industry,” the region’s most progressive reform proposal since Jamaica decriminalized the possession of small amounts of cannabis and made growing five plants at home legal six years ago.
“We were the first political party that called in the pro-cannabis lobby for discussion and our position to them has been clear,” Pierre told Cannabis Wire in another forum on July 21. “We said we will decriminalize it and, after further discussion and dialogue, to make it completely legal.”
Following the election, cannabis reform activists on the island have told Cannabis Wire that they plan to hold incoming legislators to their promise of ending prohibition before beginning another round of advocacy on the issue.
Andre de Caires, a former member of the country’s Cannabis Commission who has led reform advocacy on the island for more than two decades, told Cannabis Wire that progress on cannabis reform has been “embarrassingly slow.”
“Five years have come and gone,” he added. “Yet, despite having several roadmaps to work with, including a report from CARICOM, our politicians have failed miserably. They haven’t been able to bring a single bill to Parliament.” CARICOM, or Caribbean Community, the region’s fifteen-member economic bloc, produced a report urging governments to act on cannabis reform in 2018. CARICOM’s Regional Commission on cannabis has recommended the declassification of cannabis as a dangerous drug in all legislation, and its reclassification as a controlled substance, citing the positive social justice, economic, health, and governance impacts that reform could have in the Caribbean.
De Caires, who is the leader of the National Green Party—a minor party that also ran in the elections with a focus on civil liberties—says that the path to reform should be shortened by the fact that the the incoming government campaigned ahead of the election to uphold the findings of the Cannabis Commission and reviewed a version of reform legislation drafted by their predecessors.
Because of the use of the Westminster model in the Caribbean—the system of parliamentary government inherited from England—cannabis-related ballot initiatives and referendums are largely non-existent in the region. According to Peter Wickham, a regional political consultant and the director of Caribbean Development Research Services, a public opinion and electoral research company, this makes it difficult to say if the issue is having an impact on voter choice. Then, there is COVID, which Wickham said “has essentially sucked the energy out of the public discourse. Basically it is everyone’s central focus now.”
The most recent polling conducted on the island by Caribbean Development Research Services suggests local legislators could see public support for cannabis reforms. Of the 1,000 persons interviewed by CADRES in Saint Lucia, 51% supported cannabis-related legislative reform, with just 38% wishing to maintain the status quo. According to Wickham, however, the proposals of major parties in the region are “inconsistent with the national public opinion on the topic in Saint Lucia.” He added that this is the case in all of the countries in the region. “The public is anxious to move more quickly on the issue than the governments are,” he said, “and that’s standard across the Caribbean.”
The public’s attitude, Wickham said, is largely being influenced by the perceived economic incentives many associate with the industry. To this point, Earl Bousquet, a veteran Saint Lucian journalist and political commentator, agrees with Wickham. “We are no longer in the 20th century and we have to recognize that these are different times,” Bousquet told Cannabis Wire. “Bananas, sugar, and tourism are no longer what they used to be, the population and government must actively be thinking where next. Fresh ideas must be put on the table.”
As is the case with several other countries in the Caribbean, Saint Lucia’s tourism-based economy has taken a significant hit over the last year due to the pandemic. The region saw 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. Saint Lucia’s economy alone has seen an over 18% contraction due to the pandemic, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Thus the government of Saint Lucia, 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. According to Saint Lucia’s government-established Cannabis Commission, models for the industry—titled loosely as the “legalized-competitive model” and “legalized state-controlled model”—could both give birth to an industry with an estimated market size of $200 million (USD), with government revenues via taxation estimated at $30 million (USD). Proposals to simply decriminalize possession and allow for medical use were found by the Commission to be less favorable economically.