Medical Cannabis Poised for Final Senate Vote Friday

A cannabis bud (Image from the Wikimedia Commons)
A cannabis bud (Image from the Wikimedia Commons)

After getting enough votes in the Senate Economic Development Committee on Tuesday, the Medical Cannabis Patient Care Act continues its eleventh-hour sprint to the finish line, claiming victory in the Rules and Judiciary Committee Thursday and now facing the full Senate for the final verdict.

“I do have some goosebumps myself, Mr. Chair,” said bill sponsor Sen. Positive T.A. Nelson Thursday night, addressing Committee Chairman Sen. Novelle Francis (D-STX) who also said he felt goosebumps after the roll was called. Nelson has been pursuing the issue for years and now, near the end of his run in the Senate, he was on the verge of succeeding.

“It’s a great day. I feel good about it. I feel good that we’re headed in the right direction. And I feel good that even before we roll out this program, we’re going to see benefits from the attention we’re going to get from starting to head in this direction,” said Nelson.

The committee was split on the decision. Voting in favor of the bill were Sens. Jean Forde (D-STT), Myron Jackson (D-STT), Janelle Sarauw (I-STT) and Nelson. Francis voted no. Sens. Janette Millin Young (D-STT) and Sammuel Sanes (D-STX) were absent.

The medical cannabis bill would legalize and regulate medicinal cannabis for adult use in the territory, allowing the cultivation, processing and dispensing of medicinal marijuana products. Among the key changes it would make to local laws governing marijuana use is the protection of patients with medical conditions specified in the legislation, along with their physicians and primary caregivers, from local arrest and criminal prosecution. It would also regulate and protect supporting industries surrounding the medical marijuana industry, including processing, packaging, labeling and distribution.

The bill would also create a nine-member Cannabis Advisory Board, appointed by the governor, and the Office of Cannabis Regulation as its regulatory arm.

Under the bill, individuals with illnesses specified in the legislation are eligible to become cardholders who can purchase medical marijuana products from dispensaries. The list of qualifying illnesses includes cancer, hepatitis C, HIV-positive status, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism, opiate addiction and 15 other illnesses and conditions. Any condition not included in the original list can be petitioned for inclusion through the Office of Cannabis Regulation.

The bill also regulates the cultivation side of the medical marijuana industry, allowing licensees to grow as many as 1,000 plants, the largest allowable number under the legislation. Local farms would get $500 fee discounts for each of the license levels. To prevent monopolies, cultivators cannot also own dispensaries.

Nelson said medical marijuana products, like prescription medications, must also be regulated to prevent them from leaking to the non-cardholder population. Nelson believes the bill can potentially transform the local illegal cannabis market, and may provide legitimate business opportunities for illicit retailers of marijuana.

If approved by the Senate on Friday, the Medical Cannabis Patient Care Act will be sent to the governor, who has the prerogative to veto the bill. In that situation, the Senate will need 10 votes to override the veto and ultimately turn the bill into law.

The Rules and Judiciary Committee also:

– Approved a bill requiring the Virgin Islands government to enter into contracts before June 1 of each year in preparedness for hurricane season or any emergency or major disaster.

– Approved a bill establishing the Community and Heritage Tree Law of the Virgin Islands.

– Approved a bill on physician licensure and applicant qualifications. The bill changes the requirement of a post-graduate training program from 36 months to at least 12 months. It also additional requirements if the post-graduate program is less than 36 months.

– Tabled a bill allowing the practice of dental therapy in the territory.

– Tabled a bill authorizing the appointment of a dental therapist to the Board of Dental Examiners.