The Coronavirus Pandemic is Slowing Cannabis Reform in the Caribbean

The Caribbean region has been steadily moving to decriminalize the use and possession of cannabis and establish an industry around the plant—a plant for which it is well known. 

But officials admit the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic could push reform back by several months. And that, in turn, could set the development of the industry across the islands back by at least a year.

In Jamaica, for example, which has led the regional push, Tameka Gordon, the Communication Advisor to the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries, told Cannabis Wire that “everything has slowed” due to the pandemic. 

The country’s regulations for the commercial export of cannabis, for example, were due to be published in April. The long-awaited regulations, announced in March by Floyd Green, Minister of State in the Ministry, were set to be introduced along with a targeted support program for small and medium-sized enterprises in several key industries, including cannabis. Those may be delayed as well, as the country’s Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, said on March 23 that the government will focus all efforts on measures to contain community spread of COVID-19.

Delays appear to be on the horizon in Trinidad and Tobago as well. On Friday, Colleen Holder, the Director of Communications for the nation’s Parliament, confirmed that all Parliamentary committee meetings, including the Joint Select Committee on the Cannabis Control Bill, have been suspended for at least one week due to the guidelines issued on COVID-19 with regard to meeting sizes. The Bill establishes licensing provisions for medicinal cannabis and cannabis for religious purposes, along with rules for production and sales of medical cannabis, and the establishment of a Cannabis Licensing Authority, among other things. While the suspension of in-person meetings doesn’t end all work on the bill, the committee, which was originally due to report to Parliament on February 29, had already received an extension until April 30th, stating it required time “to embark on a clause-by-clause analysis” and to consider the views of “stakeholders.” (Several stakeholders told Cannabis Wire that they would be hard pressed, given the current climate, to meet the April deadline.)

Amid concerns over the delay, Nazma Muller, the founder of the Caribbean Collective for Justice, an NGO that advocates for social and environmental justice, is calling on Trinidad and Tobago’s government to enact provisions under the Dangerous Drugs Act to allow the Minister of Health to grant licenses for the “import, export and sale” of products derived from cannabis. The Act was amended in December to decriminalize the possession of cannabis on the Caribbean island and to allow for limited personal cultivation.

“We either need to issue licenses for medical purposes under the existing legalization or abolish [licenses] altogether and allow for cultivation,” Muller said. 

Delays relating to legislation aren’t isolated to Trinidad and Tobago. In Saint Lucia, progress on the country’s Cannabis Commission report, which would inform legislative reforms there, has stalled. The report was due to be handed over to Allen Chastanet, the country’s Prime Minister, last week. However, the government has suspended all non-essential economic and social activity, which includes cannabis, during the State of Emergency.

Stakeholder groups—including the Saint Lucia Industrial and Small Business Association, the Iyanola Council for Advancement of Rastafari, and the Cannabis Movement—issued a joint release last Thursday urging the government to move ahead with the reforms. One of the groups, the Iyanola Council for the Advancement of Rastafari, has previously threatened to take its complaints about delays to the country’s courts. Members say they are still considering that possibility.

Before the emergence of the pandemic, Bradley Felix, the country’s Minister for Commerce and Investment and head of the cabinet committee on the issue, told members of the media that the government would move quickly on the Cannabis Commission’s findings in the report, however, his Ministry has been tasked with COVID-19 related matters. 

“The report is largely complete and ready to be submitted,” Andre de Caires, a Cannabis Commission member, told Cannabis Wire. “However, our Ministers are largely focused on the coronavirus, as they should be. Hopefully, when we come out on the other side of this catastrophe we can refocus on it more seriously.”

Authorities in the Bahamas are also considering rescheduling the country’s national survey on the scope of reform there, following the implementation of a twenty-four hour curfew. The survey was due to start in mid-April, but the country’s Attorney General, Carl Bethel, has said the government is considering extending the curfew to the end of April. Officials in Barbados, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Saint Kitts and Nevis have also told Cannabis Wire they are projecting delays in the rollout of their cannabis industry plans due to the pandemic. 

Cannabis industry events have also taken a hit. CanEX, organizers of the Caribbean’s largest cannabis business events and investment summits, has rescheduled an event that was due to take place in Mumbai, India in April. CanEX’s founder, Douglas Gordon, told Cannabis Wire that events in Barbados, the Cayman Islands, and Trinidad and Tobago in May are also under consideration for rescheduling.

“At the end of the day, the business has to repurpose itself into what the environment looks like,” Gordon said, “and at the end of the day we have to make sure we aren’t doing any type of harm.”

Sarah Seale, Managing Partner at Canadian-based Cannabis Global Consultants, agrees with Gordon’s point. According to Seale, interest in the Caribbean cannabis industry is strong internationally, which should mitigate some of the harmful effects of temporary delays. 

“The Caribbean has a unique set of factors working in its favor,” Seale said. “It’s like South America. It has the right weather, people are very interested in the genetics, which are very unique and distinct, and overall it’s cheaper.”

(Catch up on Cannabis Wire’s coverage of cannabis reforms in the Caribbean here.)

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