Editorial: Time for Senate to Legalize Locally Produced Recreational Cannabis

Marijuana leaves (Yahoo photo)
Marijuana leaves (Yahoo photo)

The medical marijuana legislation approved Friday by the Legislature is a strong step in the right direction, but the territory should go further and approve legal recreational use as soon as possible. It is long-past time to stop criminalizing and marginalizing V.I. youth and adults for a practice that is demonstrably far less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.

But it is critical to do it right.

Over the holidays, radio host and V.I. historian Mario Moorhead cautioned that full legalization could lead to outside interests shipping in marijuana or controlling the local industry, creating only a few low-paying jobs for those born and raised here. Moorhead’s concern is well placed but can be addressed with good legislation.

In 2016, the Source made the same argument Moorhead makes.

“If some corporation imports marijuana to this tropical island, much of the money will immediately turn around and leave the territory. Instead of young men selling on the street corners and in the bars, we will have a smaller number of young men working for minimum wage at the register in some chain shop. We can do better,” the Source advocated then.

Other states have also grappled with the issue. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently endorsed legalization but de Blasio raised some caveats.

“I have been convinced that we can establish a regulatory framework that keeps our streets safe, rights the wrongs of the past, and gives economic opportunity to communities hit hardest by the war on drugs,” de Blasio said to the New York Times.

In 2015, an Ohio ballot referendum to legalize recreational use would have given certain companies exclusive rights to grow. Some sort of backroom negotiating led legislators to put those exclusive franchises into the referendum. Voters rejected that measure, largely over those exclusive franchises, and a new measure is working its way through the process, likely to be on the ballot in 2019.

In 2016, we suggested measures to maximize the local benefit of legalization.

“The Legislature should legalize only locally grown marijuana and should license growers and sellers, restricting it to traditional family farms, defined, like local fishing, by families who have traditionally engaged in farming in the USVI,” we concluded.

If a traditional family farm provision turns out to be incompatible with legal precedent, at the very least, cultivators could be held to stringent V.I. residency requirements, so only a bona fide resident for at least 300 days per year may cultivate. Farms could be limited in acreage, so that no one person can dominate the supply. Legislation can explicitly prohibit ever granting exclusive growing or sale franchises. If you allow growers to sell their own wares after the product is weighed and stamped by local regulators, employment and profit need not be limited to store owners.

Nelson’s medical marijuana legislation moves in the right direction here, licensing only local cultivators, with no provisions legalizing product from outside the territory. But it could be more explicit and detailed.

A few notable Virgin Islanders have staunchly, publicly opposed legalization.

Recently resigned Attorney General Claude Walker told senators in 2016 that he is “convinced that it will be a complete and total disaster for the children of the Virgin Islands and potentially wipe out an entire generation due to marijuana use.”

But the actual data suggest otherwise. Studies in Colorado, one of the first states to legalize recreational use and promote a legal-use industry, have found no increase in marijuana use among youth since legalization. No increase at all is very different from a “complete and total disaster ” wiping out “an entire generation.”

Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly of St. Croix, an excellent and civically minded person, has experienced heroin-related tragedies in her own family and inaccurately, if understandably, lumps marijuana use in with heroin overdoses and criminal violence. Marijuana use does not make people use heroin, join violent gangs or cause them to kill other people.

Every young person in the USVI already lives in the actual U.S. Virgin Islands and not some imaginary fantasy version where the schools and bars and street corners are all drug free. Unless they never go anywhere but home and church, they can already see people using cannabis on a daily basis. On Dec. 26, at the opening of the Crucian Christmas Carnival village, tens of thousands of young Virgin Islanders came out to see and be seen. And the unmistakeable aroma of marijuana could be detected wherever you went in the crowded village.

Pretending prohibition prevents use is delusional.

Legalization will not result in V.I. youth suddenly being exposed to cannabis for the first time. Nor will making it legal make children use it. Rum is served throughout the festival village yet neither the children nor most of the adults are drinking rum.

Some have raised concerns about how the federal government will react. President Donald Trump’s administration is more hostile to legalization than the previous administration was. It may be prudent to restrict moving marijuana into and out of the territory to avoid federal issues. Growing locally would increase local revenue more than buying and reselling, too.

But with a large majority of Americans now in support of legalization for recreational use, even larger majorities for medicinal use, and so much money to be gained, it would be surprising if the pro-business Republican party continues to support draconian measures. Former GOP House Speaker John Boehner is now a cannabis lobbyist and on the board of advisors for an interstate cannabis corporation.

Marijuana is not harmless, as some claim. It is addictive for some. Studies suggest about 1 in 10 users become daily smokers, a similar rate of addiction as with alcohol use. It hurts memory, making users temporarily dumber. Studies suggest that heavy, long-term daily use over two or more decades may cause small but measurable permanent memory issues after use stops. It reduces motivation. Smoke is bad for lungs. While there are other ways to consume it, smoking is the most common. The tar from other forms of smoke are linked to cancer and there is no reason to suspect cannabis smoke tar is somehow different and healthier.

But cannabis is both less harmful and less addictive than legal alcohol and legal tobacco. Law enforcement prohibition has been utterly and totally ineffectual and marijuana is readily available night and day throughout the territory, as it has been for many decades. Resources spent on enforcement, arresting, trying and incarcerating people for using cannabis, would be better spent on treatment services. And it can generate millions of dollars in real new revenue without putting more stress on existing businesses.

The fearful naysayers are wrong. The time for legalization is now. More and more states legalize every year. If we wait too long, it will cease to be a draw, just as the territory’s efforts to boost tourism and bring new hotels through casino gambling fizzled.

Senators of the 33rd Legislature, act now.