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Cannabis Industry Rising from Stalled Start

From left, Dr. Catherine Kean and Hannah Carty testified at Wednesday’s hearing. (Photos by Alvin Burke Jr. and Jamal Potter, Legislature of the Virgin Islands)

Sen. Marvin Blyden called legislation passed in January legalizing recreational marijuana “landmark legislation,” which has been “stuck in start.”

Several senators at the Committee on Economic Development and Agriculture meeting Wednesday also used the word disappointment in connection with getting the marijuana industry up and running.

Dr. Catherine Kean, chairwoman of the Cannabis Advisory Board, placed some of the blame on the legislators themselves for passing a flawed Cannabis Use Act in January.

She said the passing of that bill without any input from the Cannabis Advisory Board caused the board to scrap all the progress it had made since the Medical-use Cannabis Act was passed by the Legislature in 2018.

She said the passing of the latter bill transformed her board into something “completely different.”

Two major issues are now holding up the development of the industry, according to Kean, who called the situation a bottleneck.

First, the wording of the bill is confusing to the point that it would not allow a person to buy marijuana for adult-use because the dispensary would be a “restricted area,” allowing only people who are using marijuana for medicinal or religious reasons to enter.

Secondly, the bill raises some questions about the makeup of the Cannabis Advisory Board. But the questions aren’t being addressed because the board does not have enough members to reach a quorum.

Committee Chairman Sen. Javan James said the Senate could not be held completely responsible for the stalled industry because the executive branch was at fault for not nominating people for the board.

Hannah Carty, executive director serving the Cannabis Advisory Board, said she was confident that Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. would soon nominate people who would bring the board to enough members to achieve a quorum. The board currently has six vacancies.

The industry, when it is open to the public, is expected to bring about $20 million a year into the government coffers. When James asked Carty about that figure, she answered that it was not a calculation she had made or could confirm.

James said at the beginning of the meeting that he was “happy to see some forward movement in the industry.”

Last week, the Office of Cannabis Regulations issued suggestions on how the territory should regulate the trade and asked anyone with comments to respond before Oct. 10. The draft rules can be found on the office’s website. It’s over 144 pages, outlining specifics of licensing, cultivation, manufacturing, sales, who can be a customer, and more.

Also, last week, the board received $1 million that had been appropriated for it earlier in the year. Carty said the money would enable her to start hiring staff, but it was not enough money for them to get the tools and vehicles they need to function effectively.

She testified, “We are looking at hiring, at minimum, 16 full-time employees, of which 11 are for compliance and enforcement-related activity over the next two years. This structure is critical for our adult-use market. In speaking with other regulators, we must have the persons onboard our team to bring the illicit market into the legal market, particularly in the beginning.”

She also said that the money would allow two requests for proposals to go out. One would be for a Seed-to-Sale system and the other for consultants to score the application process for dispensary operators.

Kean said she expected about 100 applicants for 17 dispensaries that are to be licensed.

Attending Wednesday’s meeting were Sens. Javan James, Alma Francis Heyliger, Diane Capehart, Angel Bolques, Dwayne DeGraff, Marvin Blyden, Donna Frett-Gregory, Novelle Francis, and Franklin Johnson.

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