After a marathon Committee of the Whole session Tuesday, a long-debated adult-use cannabis bill was no closer to being passed, and neither was a proposal to expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana possession, as recently recommended by U.S. President Joe Biden.
Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory, who helped spearhead a delegation to Denver last October to explore the city’s medicinal marijuana infrastructure, noted at the end of the evening that there’s “still a lot of work to do” before a final document can be passed.
She chided her colleagues for not working collaboratively in the ways they had on resolving issues with emergency services and the government retirement system. She said the cannabis issue has been around for too many years and needed to be resolved, and there were many amendments to be discussed. The committee meeting was not adjourned but was recessed until Dec. 29.
Part of the problem for the cannabis discussion, according to the comments of several senators, was that instead of addressing the bill at hand, testifiers from the executive branch promoted another cannabis bill that failed to get implemented three years ago.
Sen. Kurt Vialet questioned why the administration was reviving the old bill instead of offering amendments for the new proposal. When he did not get an answer that satisfied him, he insinuated that the reason could be political revenge. He said the administration did not want to see a bill proposed by Sen. Janelle Sarauw succeed. Sarauw was Vialet’s running mate in an unsuccessful challenge to Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. in last month’s General Election.
Richard Evangelista, commissioner of the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, in promoting the old bill, said the new bill would keep the medicinal marijuana program separate from the adult marijuana program, making for inefficiency.
Skyler McKinley, who attended the meeting and is the former deputy director of the state of Colorado’s Office of Marijuana Coordination, said his state kept the two programs separate, and it worked that way.
Vialet was also critical of the old bill that would charge visitors a 25 percent tax on marijuana products and 7.5 percent on residents. Vialet said it is unconstitutional to charge different tax rates to different people. Michigan charges a 10 percent sales tax on its marijuana products, the same for visitors or residents.
Tafari Tzaddi, president of the V.I. Rastafari Sacramental Cannabis Counsel, also testified during the session. “We the Rastafari people here in the V.I., have been persecuted, demonized, and incarcerated for using and cultivating cannabis. Our human rights have been violated for decades,” he said. He proposed that the government owed the Rastafari people an apology.
Several senators were critical of the old bill and its inconsistency in defining what constitutes a bonafide resident. Sen. Franklin Johnson said, “My biggest concern is that local people get the opportunity to take part.” The bill could limit who qualifies to operate dispensaries.
The senators were in session for almost 10 hours. Although the work of approving leases, appointments, and zoning changes was approved in the legislative session, two other items on the Committee of the Whole agenda never reached the floor.
A bill to consider establishing the Sixth Constitutional Convention of the Virgin Islands and a resolution mandating Frett-Gregory file a civil action against the Government Employees’ Retirement System for its failure to implement the provisions of the V.I. Code are also expected to be heard in the Dec. 29 meeting.