After a general election in which cannabis reform was front and center during the campaign, lawmakers in Saint Lucia have passed the island’s first cannabis reform bill—and more may be on the way.
On August 31, legislators in the country’s seventeen-member House of Assembly voted unanimously to approve what is called the Criminal Records and Rehabilitation Amendment Bill, which would expunge the criminal records of anyone convicted of the possession of thirty grams or less of cannabis. The bill, which is being pitched by the country’s recently elected government as part of the country’s most aggressive criminal justice realignment in decades, also gained majority support in an extended session of the island’s eleven-member Senate, held on September 2.
The reform proposals don’t end there, however. Following the bill’s passage in both chambers of Saint Lucia’s bicameral parliament, the country’s Minister of Health, Moses Baptiste, called for a vote on another bill that would go further—amending clauses in the nation’s Drugs Prevention of Misuse Act, to remove “criminal liability for the possession of thirty grams or less of cannabis or cannabis resin,” a development experts say would effectively make possession and personal use legal.
The bills are the result of years of clamoring by activists and the public for cannabis reform, the country’s Prime Minister Philip Joseph Pierre told the Assembly on Tuesday, and their passage would see Saint Lucia exit an ever-shrinking group of countries in the Caribbean that have yet to enact cannabis reforms, either decriminalization or legalization for medical or adult use. Under current law, Saint Lucia allows a judge to impose fines instead of imprisonment for cannabis-related crimes, but the existing fines, which can range up to $20,000 USD to avoid a five to ten year prison term, are prohibitively expensive, particularly for the persons of lower economic means who are frequently arrested.
According to Pierre, who led the Saint Lucia Labour Party to victory in July’s general election on a platform that included the region’s most progressive cannabis reform proposals, the bills represent his government’s first steps towards joining its Caribbean neighbors in industry exploration. During the campaign, Pierre committed to the development of a medicinal and adult use cannabis industry. “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 at a forum back in July.
“We said we will decriminalize it and, after further discussion and dialogue, to make it completely legal,” he said. Along with its proposal to decriminalize cannabis and expunge criminal records, the Pierre-led Saint Lucia Labour Party campaigned on a plan to “develop a medicinal and recreational cannabis industry” with “the necessary resources to create and maintain a sustainable and vibrant market for cannabis, regionally and internationally.” Reforms, according to the most recent polling conducted on the island by the Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES), are generally supported by citizens. Of the 1,000 persons interviewed in 2017 by CADRES in Saint Lucia, 51% supported cannabis-related legislative reform: 18% of those interviewed supported full adult-use, 33% supported decriminalization, 38% wished to maintain the status quo, and 11% were undecided.
Spurred by the need for governments to generate more diversified forms of revenue, especially in the wake of the pandemic, the Caribbean has become a hotspot of cannabis reform over the last few years, with pushes to decriminalize or legalize unfolding in countries such as Jamaica, Saint Kitts, Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Now Saint Lucia’s path toward a regulated industry appears to be clearing. 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 reform activists and members of Saint Lucia’s Rastafarian religious minority are working to form a cooperative to represent indigenous and traditional farmers.
According to de Caires, there is a need for locals to play a more active role in the development of the regulatory framework and the licensing regime of the future industry. “We have seen governments in the region follow regulatory models that haven’t reflected any sense of equity in the industry,” de Caires told Cannabis Wire.
“We don’t want what has happened in Jamaica to happen here,” he said. “Many years after the passage of legislation there, Rastafarians and the economically disadvantaged haven’t truly benefited from the industry. The model we are working to develop is completely different to others in the region.”
“We don’t want another plantation,” de Caires added. “Based on the history of cannabis in the Caribbean, we don’t want a repeat of what has happened with sugar cane and bananas. The domestic industry must be oriented to allow those who have felt the full brunt of prohibition to cultivate cannabis.”
Who gets to cultivate cannabis on the island has emerged as an early point of contention on the legislative end of the reform process. According to de Caires, who is the leader of the National Green Party—a minor party that also ran in the July elections—foreign investors should be barred from participating in the cultivation of cannabis and licensed only to process products or conduct research.
Some leaders would like to tap the brakes on reform, however, in order to get it right. Bradley Felix, the country’s former Minister of Industry and Commerce, contends that the government should have taken the time to develop more expansive reforms before calling for the vote, which he called an attempt to “appease” some sectors of the population.
“What I’ve always said is that we should bring the entire package of bills to the House,” Felix, who led the reform process under the United Workers Party, which lost the recent election, said at Parliament on August 31. “When we talk about thirty grams, where is it going to come from? Someone has to plant it, yet do we see anything with regards to planting or selling? This needs to be a whole package, it shouldn’t be piecemealed.”
Stakeholder groups—including the Iyanola Council for the Advancement of Rastafari, the Saint Lucia Christian Council, and the Saint Lucia Industrial and Small Business Association—told Cannabis Wire, however, that the approach that is underway maps closely to the recommendations of the country’s government-established Cannabis Commission, while also cutting enforcement costs. According to the report of the Commission, the Saint Lucia government spends upwards of $1 million (USD) per year to enforce the current cannabis law while accruing added cost to imprison persons for cannabis-related offences. Meanwhile, the Commission estimates the end of prohibition could earn the government upwards of $30 million (USD) annually in cannabis revenue from taxes and licensing fees.
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 a contraction of more than 18% 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 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”—both could 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.
What’s next? Well nobody is quite sure. The next sitting of Saint Lucia’s Parliament – both the Assembly and Senate – have been adjourned “sine die” with no appointed date for resumption due to the latest surge of COVID-19 cases on the island.