2014_marijuana_flickr_wackystuffOn November 4, voters in the U.S. Virgin Islands approved the use of medical marijuana in the Territory, paving the way for legalization of producing, processing, manufacturing and distributing hemp for medicinal purposes in “America’s Paradise”. The measure received widespread support, passing by a margin of 56 to 43 percent.

The referendum was nonbinding, which means that it essentially served as an opinion poll of the public. It is up to the 31st Legislature of the Virgin Islands to actually legalize medical marijuana, the 31st Legislature taking office in January will potentially draft legislation and deliberate the topic over the next year.

Medical marijuana legalization is not a simple matter to address, as there are numerous regulations that would need to be implemented as part of the process. The U.S. Legislature would need to address how officials would regulate dispensaries and distribution facilities, as well as the amount of the drug individuals would be able to possess with a prescription.

What is clear is that legalizing medical marijuana has the potential to help people suffering from a variety of health conditions, including glaucoma, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and many others. Earlier this year, when the Legislature approved the referendum, several Virgin Islands Senators went on record speaking to the fact that they had friends or family members who would directly benefit from legalization.

In addition, some advocates point out that medical marijuana—and eventually its legalization for recreational uses—could draw more tourists to the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Caribbean as a whole. At September’s “State of the Industry” tourism conference in St. Thomas, Sen. Terrance Nelson, a supporter of legalization, argued publicly that the Caribbean Tourism Organization should leverage cannabis as a commodity, as many people who visit the region do so with the expectation that they’ll be able to secure marijuana. According to Nelson, this could represent another positive marketing tool for the tourism industry, the largest driver of the Territory’s economy.

On the other hand, medical professionals and public health officials continue to warn that the legislature should move cautiously when it comes to legalization and decriminalization efforts. Caribbean Public Healthy Agency Executive Director Dr. C. James Hospedales issued a message to officials at the State of the Industry event, noting that studies have indicated that smoking marijuana regularly causes clear mental and physical health problems for individuals.

The public’s approval of the referendum comes two months after a 30th Legislature of the Virgin Islands committee approved a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana—a measure that passed 5-0. Governor de Jongh vetoed this proposed law but it was overturned by the 30th Legislature on December 19 by a unanimous vote of present Senators.

Regardless of where you stand on this issue, it’s clear that the marijuana policy in the U.S. Virgin Islands is changing, and will likely continue to do so in the next several years. It will be interesting to see how the 31st Legislature moves ahead with the results of the November referendum vote.

BoltNagi is a well-respected and established government relations law firm serving clients throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands.