This is the first in a two-part series on cannabis regulations in the Virgin Islands.
If you’re confused by the recent initiatives in the territory to legalize hemp products, medical marijuana use and recreational marijuana use, you’re not alone.
The Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs held town meetings on all three islands this week to clarify regulations that are already in place, discuss procedures that could be problematic if and when marijuana is legalized in the territory and get input from the public to share with legislators as laws are being written and enacted.
At the St. John meeting held at the Legislative Annex Wednesday night, Richard Evangelista, commissioner of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, told the audience of nearly three dozen community members, “Don’t wait for the government to find out how you can get involved.”
Evangelista emphasized that the legal status of growing, manufacturing and selling cannabis products is “fluid.” In recent conversations, Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett has indicated that the U.S. Congress may soon remove marijuana from its list of illegal drugs. Any residents who wish to participate in the local marijuana industry should get on the internet, do their research and find partners to work with.
In theory, marijuana for medical use became legal back in January 2019 when Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. signed the Virgin Islands Medicinal Cannabis Patient Care Act. In practice, however, implementation of the legislation has been held up for months; four of the nine positions on the board that was established to set the rules and regulations for marijuana production, distribution and use remain unfilled.
Evangelista spent no time discussing why the remaining board positions have not been filled but said the five members who have been appointed have begun holding informal discussions.
Legalizing medical marijuana became even more complicated last fall when Gov. Bryan proposed amending the Virgin Islands Medicinal Cannabis Patient Care Act to include legalizing marijuana for recreational use among adults. He said taxing marijuana could be used as a way to partially fund the failing Government Employees Retirement System.
At a Senate hearing in December, an amendment to allow recreational use was sent to the Committee of the Whole for further debate. Panelists at Wednesday’s town meeting on St. John said the matter could come up for debate within the next several weeks and urged stakeholders to contact senators with their suggestions.
Legalization of Hemp
While legalization of marijuana is on hold, legalization of the sale of hemp products has recently been fully implemented in the Virgin Islands. Laurent “Tippy” Alfred, a St. Croix business owner, explained that hemp is the exact same plant as cannabis sativa – marijuana – but it contains a much lower dose of the psychoactive ingredient Tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC, which makes people “high.” By law, hemp products can only contain 0.3 percent THC.
However, cannabis – marijuana and hemp – contain CBD, also known as cannabinoids. CBD has been widely used to treat sleep disorders, seizures, arthritis and chronic pain disorders.
Hemp also has numerous industrial uses and can be found in the production of paper, textiles, rope and construction materials.
A referendum was passed several years ago allowing the sale of hemp products in the Virgin Islands, but local lawmakers decided not to act on the measure until several months ago when the federal Food and Drug Administration approved CBD for sale, and President Trump signed their ruling into law.
Two businesses on St. John licensed to sell hemp products have opened their doors for business in the past month.
Alfred, who sits on the territory’s Hemp Board, said the Virgin Islands Government has sent proposed regulations for the production and sale of hemp products to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; that agency has promised to respond to the proposed regulations within 60 days.
The problem with legalizing hemp production is that the plant is identical to marijuana except for the THC content. Lawmakers depend on laboratories to measure the THC level, and no such laboratories exist within the territory. Panelists at Wednesday’s meeting said discussions are underway with the University of the Virgin Islands to establish a laboratory, but this alone will not solve the problem.
Here’s why: Unless a lab certified to test THC content was built on St. John, a cannabis plant grown as hemp on St. John would have to be transported to a lab on St. Thomas or St. Croix for testing.
As the law stands now, that plant would have to pass over bodies of waters controlled by the federal government which outlaws marijuana. The federal government would not be able to readily determine whether the plant grown on St. John was hemp or marijuana based on its THC level; until the plant was tested and certified as hemp, it could be subject to confiscation and its owners could be charged with transporting a controlled substance.
Miguel Tricoche, director of consumer affairs for DLCA, said Alaska, with its many small islands, has faced this problem, and lawmakers there have written regulations to address it. “We’re going to have to look at best practices [from other jurisdictions]; we don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he said.
Legalization of Marijuana
Tricoche fielded questions from the audience about various proposals for legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use.
When asked about the number of producers and sellers that would be licensed on St. John, Tricoche explained that the number of licenses granted on each island would be based on population and area. On St. John, licenses would be granted to three dispensaries, five manufacturers and ten micro-cultivators, or small farmers. A micro-cultivator, according to draft legislation, would be permitted to grow 50 flowering plants and 100 nonflowering plants at one time.
Panelists explained that the legislation drafted by the Office of Cannabis Regulation was designed to provide long-term residents with access to the marijuana cultivation industry. The idea is to keep big marijuana manufacturers (already established in states like California and Colorado) from coming into the territory and taking over the industry.
The requirements for applicants are stringent. Anyone who applies for a license in the territory must prove that more than 50 percent of the business is owned by a local resident; residents must prove they’ve lived in the territory and paid taxes for at least ten out of the last 15 years.
In order to buy marijuana from a dispensary, medical marijuana users must prove that they have at least one of the ten approved medical conditions.
Under the current rules for medical marijuana users, individuals (or their caregivers) who are certified to buy marijuana from a licensed dispensary will be allowed to grow a certain number of marijuana plants for their own consumption.
However, under the proposed legislation for recreational use, adults will not be allowed to grow their own marijuana plants but must purchase marijuana at a licensed dispensary.
Part Two will cover what restrictions apply to legal hemp retailers in the Virgin Islands.