While testimony at Monday’s meeting of the Legislature’s Economic Development, Agriculture and Planning Committee, at the St. Croix Legislature building, largely favored legalizing hemp cultivation, several testifiers raised concerns from wages and ownership to the illicit drug business.
Kwame Garcia, who serves as the director of the University of the Virgin Islands Cooperative Extension Service, told the six senators at the meeting to look at the sugar cane industry’s history.
“One class of people did the work and another class got the benefit,” he said, urging the senators to keep ownership of the industry local.
He said that historically, agriculture paid laborers very little with nearly all the profits going to the owners.
“Low-paying jobs are not the types of jobs we want in the Virgin Islands,” he said.
Garcia said the territory needs to look at a new model for agriculture production so everyone benefits.
Along those same lines, Sen. Sammuel Sanes said that while he sees possibilities with commercial hemp production, he wants to know if the territory can produce enough to offset the cost of “running” it.
Garcia also noted that it was likely feasible to grow hemp for export because there wasn’t a local market for all the territory could grow.
Assistant Police Commissioner Thomas Hanna said that it’s not possible to visually distinguish the hemp plant from its very close relative, the marijuana plant. While he raised a scenario where both types would be planted close together to hide marijuana production, Barbara LaRonde, president of the pro-legalized marijuana organization USVINORM., said growers know better than to plant them together because they cross pollinate. She said this would ruin both crops.
Hanna said he was also worried should criminals get involved.
“We have an existing problem where individuals are killing each other over dime bags of marijuana,” he said.
Hanna said that while the Police Department realizes the bill’s passage is inevitable, the department does not support it in its current form. He said the department is not ready to begin policing hemp production.
“You police criminals, not citizens,” the bill’s sponsor, non-committee member Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson, responded.
Several testifiers spoke about the need to determine if it’s feasible to grow hemp in the territory.
“Research must be done,” Agriculture Commissioner Louis Petersen Jr. said.
He later said it would take two to three years to do the research. He said if the studies determine it’s feasible to grow hemp in the territory, then production could begin.
Bureau of Economic Research Director Wharton Berger said that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has not granted any licenses for commercial growth of hemp because so far, no one has demonstrated they have effective security in place.
However, LaRonde disagreed. She said that Kentucky and other locales have “permission for commercial licenses.” Wharton countered by saying that Kentucky has a license to import hemp seeds for research.
Several testifiers spoke about hemp’s many uses. Its fibers can be used to make clothing and similar products. It can be used in food and as fuel. And Medina Colbert, who owns a small construction company, said it can be used to make hempcrete, which is a replacement for concrete in constructing buildings.
“It’s more environmentally friendly than concrete,” she said.
After four hours of testimony, all six committee members at the meeting agreed to hold the bill for amendments and changes. They also agreed to hold a bill sponsored by Sen. Myron Jackson to authorize a feasibility study on the production, marketability and medicinal value of moringa trees in the territory and the potential commercial value of hemp and bamboo.
In addition to Jackson and Sanes, other committee members at the meeting included Sens. Clifford Graham,Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly,Diane Capehart and Janette Millin-Young, who chaired the meeting. Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone was absent.