Trinidad and Tobago has finally moved one big step closer to the development of a cannabis industry. On Friday, a committee of legislators published its long-promised final report on the country’s Cannabis Control Bill, addressing several contentious issues and moving the bill closer to passage.
The bill would establish the legislative framework for Trinidad and Tobago’s Cannabis Licensing Authority, the body that would govern licenses for the cultivation, distribution, sale, and import and export of cannabis for medicinal use. The committee—a Parliamentary Joint Select Committee, and consisting of members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate—was established to review the Cannabis Control Bill, which was first introduced by the country’s Attorney General, Faris Al-Rawi, in 2019. Committee members cited “the complexity of the Bill” and the need to engage in “consultations with Cannabis Authorities of the region” as reasons for the long delay. But on Friday, the legislative group recommended a list of 25 amendments be made to the Control Bill.
Chief among the recommendations is a focus on regulatory compliance and transparency within the industry. The amended Bill also includes a special class of licenses, which would govern the cultivation, dispensing, and transport of cannabis for religious purposes.
Still, reform advocates have expressed concern about some recommendations, including the proposed penalties in the Bill for licensees who fall out of compliance with the Act, or the terms of their license. They could be subject to hefty fines and possible imprisonment. Given privacy concerns, activists are also uncomfortable with a recommendation that the Authority establish and maintain a publicly available registry of licensees. Activists are also voicing concerns that the amended Bill still falls short in the area of restorative justice for those impacted by cannabis prohibition and have called for policies that would ensure that the groups most heavily impacted gain a foothold in the budding industry.
Activists and industry stakeholders have notched some victories when it comes to the criteria for the granting of licenses. The Bill would allow cultivator licensees to sell in wholesale quantities to research and development, laboratory, and export licensees. Based on interpretations of the Bill’s first draft, only processor licensees could engage in those types of sales, creating what stakeholders described as a “bottleneck” in the supply chain. The recommendations in the final report also grant processor licensees the ability to sell medicinal cannabis at wholesale quantities to retail distributor and export licensees, and would automatically grant research and development and laboratory licensees import and export licenses.
Another reform recommended in the final report: All licenses would be open for persons who had previously been charged under the country’s Dangerous Drugs Act and had since successfully requested that their convictions be expunged. Earlier interpretations of the Bill excluded that group from participation.
The central idea behind the Committee’s recommendations is “clear,” according to Al Rawi, who served as the Committee’s Chair. What makes the law relevant for citizens and necessary for the future of Trinidad and Tobago, Al Rawi said on a June 3 online forum, is “ensuring we diversify our economy well.”
“This Cannabis Control Bill is big news for us,” he said, “because it is going to introduce the concept of commercialization from seed to product.”
According to Al Rawi, the focus on compliance and transparency is so that licensees can lean heavily on “the genetic patent availability and plant variety availability under the country’s intellectual property laws” to carve out their niche in the fledgling industry. Those laws in Trinidad & Tobago, such as the Protection of Plant Varieties and Patents Act along with the Copyright, Geographical Indications, and TradeMarks Acts, have long been used by international corporations to secure rights to trademarks and patents before transferring them to countries such as members of the European Union and the United States.
Meanwhile, the Committee did not recommend an amendment to one of the Bill’s most contentious provisions, which allows foreign nationals to become majority shareholders in companies licensed under the Authority. As currently worded, the Bill would allow up to 70% foreign ownership in local cannabis companies, one of the largest ownership quotas in the region.
Activists, such as Nazma Muller, who favor stronger local representation, want to have limits similar to Jamaica, which restricts foreign ownership in cannabis companies to 49%. According to Muller, a Trinidadian cannabis legalization activist, stricter ownership provisions will secure the rights of indigenous farmers and give locals greater control over the budding industry. Less foreign ownership, activists contend, will protect the industry from future shocks in the global market—such as those that caused several Canadian cannabis companies to divest from the region in an effort to save cash—while also creating more domestic employment and investment opportunities.
“We don’t want international companies to waltz in with their pocket change and own our industry,” Muller told Cannabis Wire in an interview. Without provisions that encourage and protect local ownership, “it feels as if Trinidad and Tobago’s industry is just going to be on the auction block for whoever has the money to come in.”
Muller also argues that regulators must include clearer paths for small farmers, or those transitioning from the illegal market, by creating micro licenses for cultivation and processing, such as the <$1,000 USD licenses in Jamaica specifically aimed at indigenous farmers.
To this point, Al Rawi says that the language in the Bill that mandates local ownership of at least 30% of all licenses awarded, except for research and development and laboratory licenses, will limit the issues that critics of the legislation have highlighted. He argues, however, that if Trinidad and Tobago is going to compete in exporting its cannabis and products derived from the plant, larger foreign players may have the necessary expertise.
“We accept that there will be big players around the industry that would want to come in,” Al-Rawi said, arguing that if the industry is to be developed with an eye toward export to the international market, it must be done “in a safe environment where you aren’t fighting with bacteria, mold, and mildew and where you are actually producing high grade and high-quality varieties.”
Several civil society groups, such as the All Mansions of Rastafari, contend that the recommendations fail to create space in the industry for those historically impacted by the prohibition. When contacted by Cannabis Wire for comment on the Committee’s report, several members of Rastafarian faith-based organizations, who generally support legalization, said that they were disappointed that their recommendations to have representation on the Authority’s board weren’t adopted.
The Bill’s next hurdle will come in the following weeks, when the House of Representatives will debate and vote on whether to adopt some or all of the Committee’s recommendations, and amend the Cannabis Control Bill accordingly. If approved, the Bill would be referred to the Senate.