Neither rules nor regulations have been drafted for the U.S. Virgin Islands’ medical marijuana law, so a forum on the use of medical marijuana in the workplace, either by prescription or recreationally, left participants with more questions than answers on Friday, Dec. 13.
“We recognize the importance of this act and what it will do for the people of the Virgin Islands,” said the forum’s host, Valdemar Hill, president of the Virgin Islands chapter of the National Association of Africans in Human Resources.
There were around 30 participants at the event that was held Friday in the Great Hall of the University of the Virgin Islands St. Croix campus. Participants ranged from representatives of large and small companies and agencies on St. Croix. Two panels discussed what is known about cannabis and the impact of regulations – at this point, there are only federal regulations – on employees and employers.
Agriculture Commissioner Positive Nelson opened the conference with a short history of how cannabis was used for thousands of years as medicine, then stigmatized by governments before recently regaining recognition around the world as medicine. Nelson said the “conspiracy” to demonize the plant began in the 1930s and President Richard Nixon deemed it “of no good use,” Nelson said. The lumber, paper, furniture, cotton and even plastic industries feared hemp would take over their products in popularity and versatility.
“That started the rugged road to redemption,” Nelson said.
Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, also U.S. territories, recently approved medical and recreational uses while the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico legalized only medical cannabis. On the mainland 35 states allow medical cannabis, 12 permit recreational use and four countries have no restrictions.
As a member of the V.I. Senate, Nelson sponsored the V.I. Cannabis Patient Care Act that was generated by a public referendum. Its passage was among his final acts as a senator. It was signed into law by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. in January 2019 and provides for beginning an industry to grow, produce and regulate medical marijuana products.
The first panelists were Austin Wright, a small farm extension agent from Kentucky State University, and Dr. Manny DaCosta, a retired chiropractor who specialized in sports injuries.
Marijuana is defined as a cannabis sativa plant with more than 0.3 percent THC, while hemp has less than 0.3 percent. Wright talked mostly about hemp and its uses. He said that, until recently, many people in his area thought it would produce intoxication or a high.
“You would have to consume tons of hemp for even a little buzz,” he said.
People using hemp do not test positive for cannabis, he added, and usually use it because they can’t take other medicine for ailments such as diabetes, high blood pressure or post-traumatic stress disorder.
“You shouldn’t discriminate against that person,” he told the audience. “It is a plant that can help. It is a plant that can heal.”
Wright advised employers to have open discussions with staff about their company’s policies.
DaCosta agreed with Wright that employers should discuss the subject thoroughly with staff. It is up to the employer whether or not they are a zero-tolerance employer or accept positive tests in employees, he said. Testing determines the presence of THC but not how much was used or when. People test positive for cannabis for up to 30 days after ingestion.
“You don’t want to lose good people because of drug testing,” he said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I want the best for my employee or just to follow rules and regulations?’”
Some people use stronger strains of cannabis to combat their pain levels or fight serious diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s. DaCosta said he tolerated three major surgery’s using only cannabis afterwards for pain.
“You can’t overdose – you can’t kill yourself,” DaCosta said.
When cannabis was stigmatized in the 1930s, DaCosta said there was an increase, continuing to today, in incidents of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and ADHD.
“Did we ever look at what we were not putting in our bodies?” he asked.
The second panel also said employers had the right to set their own policy on drug testing and tolerance. They stressed that cannabis products will be laboratory tested before they can be sold in the territory.
Miguel Tricoche, director of V.I. Consumer Services and a candidate to serve on the cannabis regulatory board, told the audience that customers need to make sure the products they are buying are made of hemp. The recently formed hemp board is in the process of writing regulations and should have them available for public viewing before Christmas, according to Tricoche.
Another panel member, attorney Kye Walker, said all regulations will be made public before they become law, according to the V.I. Code. She advised employers to align their policies with federal and local laws – when local laws are in place.
In the end, there should be physicians involved to dispense prescriptions and medical cards.
“You have to accommodate an employee who is a medical cannabis user,” she said. “Reasonably accommodate them.”
Dr. Nicole Syms, from the V.I. Department of Health, also participated in the second panel and stressed the importance of education and having regulations and policies in place.
“Impaired or not able to perform. If you have rules and regulations, everybody will be treated the same,” she said.
Someone from the department will serve on the cannabis board, she said, adding the department has already begun inspecting the products being sold in the territory.