V.I. Delegation in Denver for Bigger-Picture View of Recreational Cannabis Industry

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. speaks during the workshop in Denver. (Photo submitted by Government House)

Finalizing a bill to allow for recreational cannabis use in the U.S. Virgin Islands will require a dedicated push from both sides to consider and shore up issues ranging from regulation to public education and safety, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. and Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory said Tuesday.

The two represented a contingent of V.I. officials taking part in a Denver, Colorado, summit on the ins and outs of the recreational cannabis industry.

Colorado voters approved recreational marijuana use in 2012, and according to a June 2021 report published by Colorado’s Division of Criminal Justice’s Office of Research and Statistics, it has led to the development of a multi-million dollar industry, with almost 3,000 licensed marijuana businesses registered by mid-2020 and upwards of $120 million in tax, license and fee revenue garnered by the state’s government in the same year.

Speaking from Denver on Tuesday, both Bryan and Frett-Gregory cautioned that the feedback received from state experts revealed that along with the successes there was a need for a solid – and comprehensive – foundation of policies and regulations beforehand. Speaking during his weekly press briefing – broadcast live from the Cannabis Summit the delegation is attending – Bryan said it will take at least another year and a half to get an industry up and running within the territory, but from the workshops attended and discussions held, the group got a better understanding of exactly what it will take to bring in these new revenues.

“It always takes time to get something far-reaching like this done,” the governor said. “Cannabis is one of the things we have been working on for over two years and as we learn more, we become better acquainted with the task before us. But, we have to start, and constantly move the ball forward.”

After signing into law legislation authorizing the medicinal use of marijuana in the territory in 2019, Bryan proposed the Virgin Islands Cannabis Use Act, calling for the expanded use of cannabis and cannabis-derived products for non-medical purposes. After discussions with the Senate, Bryan made adjustments to the bill and resubmitted it in May 2020. As proposed, the bill would: establish a regulated system for the cultivation, manufacture and distribution of cannabis for medicinal and sacramental use; provide oversight of the cannabis industry by establishing a regulated system to protect public safety; and create economic opportunities for the territory.

Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory says the workshops with Colorado cannabis experts revealed bigger-picture issues to be resolved. (Photo submitted by Government House)

For Frett-Gregory, who organized the trip in conjunction with the National Council of State Legislators, which is headquartered in Denver, what was clear from the first day is that achieving those goals is going to require a “heavy lift” from both the government, potential businesses and community stakeholders.

“There are a lot of things that we didn’t think about when we initially worked on the legislation,” Frett-Gregory said during Tuesday’s press briefing. “Now we have been able to hear first-hand from state officials about their growing pains and how they implemented legislation to improve what they were doing and the lives of the people.”

In the first days of workshops, a top focus was banking and taxation, which Frett-Gregory described as “pivotal issues” within the industry, including the hazards of overtaxing and the potential for the creation of an “illicit market.” Discussion on regulating cash so that taxes are collected, public safety and education and policies for law enforcement officers were also on the agenda.

Speaking from a local perspective, Bryan said other components also have to be considered as the territory builds from the ground up.

“Medicinal cannabis doesn’t generate any money for the territory” he explained. “So establishing costs, setting up the office, paying an executive director, developing a seed to sales system, organization and convincing someone to invest in lab equipment, assessing places from which cannabis will be distributed – those all have to be considered.”

So does packaging and distribution, as product can’t be moved from one jurisdiction to another but rather has to be grown, packaged and distributed on the ground, Bryan added.

“It’s a very small market comparatively so it will be interesting,” he said. “There are seven franchises on each island, valued at upwards of $4 to $5 million apiece, which could generate $2 to $3 million for the business annually. How do we do that in a fair way to get the government revenues, while also maintaining accessibility and social justice. It is important that locals get to participate in a way that brings a great product and industry to people of the Virgin Islands.”