Belize: A Cannabis Legalization Bill Hits Some Headwinds

As the race to develop a cannabis industry in the Caribbean continues to take shape, one government’s proposal to create one is facing headwinds.

Last month, the government of Belize published the draft of a bill that would allow for the cultivation, processing, and sale of cannabis for adult use. The bill would amend a key chapter in the country’s Misuse of Drugs Act

However, criticism from Belize’s influential Council of Churches, as well as concerns from advocates for the nation’s burgeoning hemp industry, has slowed its progress. The bill has been sent to a standing committee of the House of Representatives, with the government now seeking to strike a balance between competing interests.

Last month, Kareem Musa, the country’s Minister of Home Affairs, said he had expected “pushback from the church” on the bill, which would create an Industrial Hemp and Cannabis Control Commission to manage the quality and licensing for cannabis and hemp products to be cultivated, consumed, processed, and sold. The Council of Churches, a body created by Belize’s constitution to represent several major Christian denominations, as well as the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches, argue that further cannabis reform will lead to increased cannabis use. Musa, who admits that Belize is “a little more conservative than most” countries in the region, contends that establishing the Commission is the only way to end the “web of contradictory cannabis policies” that exist.

The web that Musa refers to was ushered in four years ago, when the country’s House of Representatives passed a bipartisan amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act to decriminalize the possession or use of ten grams or less of cannabis on private premises. The amendment, however, created no legal point of sale or access to cannabis, and created new monetary fines and penalties for the possession of more than ten grams of cannabis. Under the recently published bill, those provisions will be eliminated to give way to a licensing scheme that would allow any person to grow up to two cannabis plants per household or purchase cannabis flower or goods derived from the plant after “applying to the Commission for a Cannabis Program Identification Card,” according to the text of the bill.

The church, Musa told reporters, “will have an issue with this.” But, he added, “The government sees this as only practical, given the circumstances that we now face. We have something that is decriminalized and you have no legal way of obtaining it.”

Here, the key word is “legal.” Another benefit of the proposal, according to Musa, is that it would also strike a blow to the illegal market—particularly the illegal transport of cannabis from Mexico—which flourished after Belize’s decriminalization amendment. The growth of the illicit market is a point that CARICOM—the fifteen-member economic bloc Belize is a member of—has urged regional governments to consider as they seek to implement reforms. In a report published in 2018, CARICOM’s Regional Commission on Cannabis recommended the declassification of cannabis as a dangerous drug in all legislation, and its reclassification as a controlled substance, citing what it argues are the positive social justice, economic, health, and governance impacts that cannabis reform could have in the Caribbean. 

Musa also contends that cannabis reforms in Mexico, which shares a land border with Belize, and potential reforms elsewhere in the region, have provided added impetus, since some people feel that Belize has played the role of a “bystander” as others take advantage of the economic opportunities in the industry. 

Belize’s current government, formed by the People’s United Party following elections in December 2020, faces little difficulty in passing the adult-use bill in the country’s House of Representatives, where the party won 26 of the country’s 31 Parliamentary constituencies. Gaining approval in the Senate, however, is where the issue gets thorny, as the party holds only six of thirteen seats. The opposition party, which has already expressed reservations over the government’s ability to implement the plan and called for further consultations, holds three Senate seats. The remaining four seats are appointed by the country’s United Kingdom-appointed Governor-General, after consulting various groups—including the Council of Churches.

Meanwhile, as the government looks to push through changes to one chapter of the Misuse of Drugs Act, it is facing criticism for its failure to implement another in a timely fashion. Four years ago, when Belize made its first series of amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act, legislators promised to provide regulations for the cultivation of hemp, which was already legal in Belize. Those regulations took two years to be published and were later  amended to fall in line with the United States’ hemp regulations under the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized cannabis plants with .3% THC or less. Despite those steps, the regulations haven’t been fully implemented. And, with the government now looking to make another legislative push, hemp industry advocates such as Giovanni Alamilla are skeptical.

What they fear is an already slow bureaucracy getting even slower. “Our permit to import seeds wasn’t approved until six months after general elections were held, and because of that delay we weren’t able to start our greenhouse until two months ago,” Alamilla, who is working to establish a cooperative of over 200 farmers to cultivate about 15,000 acres of hemp, told Cannabis Wire.

“I think the outlook for our industry is good,” he explained. “Our main issue has been waiting for the government to say that we can continue with our plans. We don’t want the goalpost moved after we have made all our financial investments.” 

According to Alamilla, the application process is slow and regulators haven’t approved any licenses in the industry since December of 2020, when the country held elections. “I think the government isn’t approving any because they are still trying to figure out what their plans are,” he added. “Whatever they do, I hope we are grandfathered in so that we don’t lose our licenses.”

As is the case with Guyana, Belize is poised to reap one of the highest economic windfalls from a legal cannabis industry due to its large and well-established agricultural sector, which in 2020 accounted for almost 10 percent of Belize’s gross domestic product.

According to Dr. Machel Emanuel, a horticulturist and researcher at the Life Sciences Department at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, good farming practices and regulation will be key to finding a middle ground between those already cultivating hemp and those who believe cannabis will be more lucrative. 

“Regulations will determine how the operations will take place, and the type of investors that will be attracted to invest,” Emanuel, who researches the profitability of indigenous cannabis cultivars in the Caribbean, told Cannabis Wire.

According to Emanuel, the country’s farmers will have to develop and implement good plant husbandry techniques that will lower the potential risk of cross-pollination, a factor many in the industry fear with the emergence of the country’s dual cultivation plan.

As is the case with other Caribbean countries, the government of Belize has pitched revenue from taxes and fees related to cannabis cultivation and sales as part of a plan to accelerate the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery. Belize, however, is part of an even smaller group of countries in the region that has considered legislating full adult use. While others in the region—such as Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, and Saint Lucia—have seen their proposals stall, other governments are also exploring loosening their cannabis regulations further with a view of finding a way to draw tourists into the market. 

According to Marcus Ramkissoon, a cannabis consultant who has worked with various governments in the region on developing legislation and regulation, many countries in the region are wary of violating the United Nations drug treaties that they have signed, despite the economic potential of legalization.

In his mind, he explained: “Belize is less afraid to make movements into cannabis legislation than other countries in the Caribbean, possibly due to the decisions taken by Mexico,” where the Supreme Court voted to end prohibition. Most countries in the region, he said, are cautious of moving beyond plans that fall under the umbrella of “medicinal cannabis.”  

Although the Caribbean has emerged as a hotspot for legislative reform relating to cannabis—with nations moving to decriminalize or legalize medical use—US banking regulations remain a major headache. Most countries have been unable to fully develop their industries in part due to a combination of hurdles in the banking sector, delayed export regulations, and an international market that  investors say “doesn’t favor the region.” As in the United States, commercial banks in the Caribbean have generally refused to offer services to businesses in the cannabis industry, in fear of violating US federal laws, under which cannabis remains illegal. These banks depend heavily on correspondent banking relationships in North America and maintain those relationships by following US federal law.  

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