ST. THOMAS – Members of the 33rd Legislature, led by Senate President Novelle E. Francis, Jr. convened in Committee of the Whole at the Capitol Building on Friday to receive testimony on the Virgin Islands Cannabis Use Act, which proposed to expand the legalization of Medicinal Cannabis. Testifiers included officials from the Virgin Islands Police Department (VIPD), the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health, the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce, the Telluride Bud Company and Oregon Bud Company, St. Croix Chamber of Commerce, USVI NORML, the Division of Economic Research, and SEGAL. Lawmakers did not vote on the proposed measure. Action will be taken in a future Legislative Session.
“The Legislature of the Virgin Islands is taking a second bite into the Virgin Islands Cannabis Use Act. Previously, Governor Albert Bryan, Jr. called the Legislature into Special Session on December 18, 2019, at which time senators received extensive testimonies from stakeholders and determined that additional amendments were required,” said Sen. Francis. “Today the Legislature will further vet and review changes made by the governor’s submission.”
Some of the major revisions made to the Virgin Islands Cannabis Use Act, in the form of an amendment in the nature of a substitute, are inclusive of limiting the micro-cultivation permit to licensed farmers to allow existing farmers direct entry into the Cannabis Industry with lighter enforcements. The amendments would also add a representative from the Department of Tourism to serve on the Cannabis Advisory Board and increase the tax revenue to the Government of the Virgin Islands (GVI) from the resident sales tax of 7.5%; according to Attorney Kye Walker, who represented the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce.
Ensuring protection and opportunities for the local community was a priority for the senators. “It is really important to me that our locals are protected, and that farmers can grow and partake in the Cannabis Industry and ensure that the community understands the revisions presented today,” Sen. Allison DeGazon said. The revised legislation allows 50.1% of ownership for residents and 49.9% of ownership for non-resident cannabis businesses. However, Sen. Oakland Benta expressed apprehension about the changes. “This whole thing is pushed by another entity that will ultimately leave out local farmers from partaking in the major money-making opportunities.”
Expanding the legalization of cannabis is proposed to be a major revenue source for the Government Employees Retirement System. Richard Evangelista, Esq., Commissioner of the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, indicated that the breakdown of the dissemination of revenues collected from the special sales tax is as follows: GERS will receive 75%, the Office of Cannabis Regulation (OCR) will have 20% for operations and the remaining 5% is specifically for education, micro-lending programs for residents and Micro-Cultivator permittees. Collectively, it is projected that over $1,000,000 is slated to be collected from various licenses and permits obtained through ORC. In response to Sen. Janelle Sarauw’s inquiry regarding whether this is a conservative projection, Mark Wenner, Chief Economist for the Division of Economic Research stated that $1.5 million is a conservative projection that is anticipated from collections of all licenses, permits, and fees for manufacturing cannabis, cannabis products, cultivation, and dispensaries.
Presently, there aren’t Federal guidelines for testing the quality and safety of cannabis. However, the Department of Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion mentioned that an efficient testing program can be established based on the policy, guidelines, and regulations from the Association of Public Health Laboratories in conjunction with local laws. Separately, VIPD Commissioner Trevor Velinor stated that the ORC Enforcement Division Peace Officers will be tasked with enforcing the laws for the Cannabis Industry.