PRESS RELEASE: Thursday, 10 December 2020:
I would like to provide an update on the status of the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Amendment Bill and the Cannabis Licensing Bill.
There has been a great deal of public interest in both bills and therefore, after updating the Premier and Cabinet, it is right to update the public on their progress. I am pleased to be at a point where we can move forward with these bills and I hope to see them become law in due course.
First it may help to set out some background on the process behind a Governor’s assent. This process is enshrined in our Constitution, which states that a Governor may only assent to a bill if it is fully compliant with international regulations, does not conflict with the Constitution and does not pose risks those areas that the Constitution makes clear are a Governor’s responsibility, including the safety and security of the people of BVI. The bills have been considered against these criteria and these criteria only.
International regulations on this matter are extremely complex and the bills have required a great deal of scrutiny and cross-examination with international laws. As BVI is an Overseas Territory of the UK, BVI is bound by the UK’s international obligations (such as those set by the United Nations) when it comes to the regulation of drugs. The UK has ultimate responsibility for ensuring BVI complies with those obligations and the UK is held liable if there is a breach in compliance. Therefore, in addition to the scrutiny given to the bills in our House of Assembly, they have also required extensive line-by-line scrutiny in the UK.
This process has been further complicated by the fact that cannabis has been a ‘live issue’ in the United Nations and with the World Health Organisation over recent months. It was most recently debated on the 2 December, where the UN voted to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention. The drug now sits within Schedule I alongside drugs such as cocaine and opium – recognition of the fact that it can have therapeutic benefits if used in a safe and controlled way, but nonetheless, remains a dangerous drug that has the potential to threaten public health. It has been important to follow these debates very closely in order to consider the possible implications for this bill.
I regret that the consideration of these bills has taken some time but I am grateful to the Premier, Members of the House of Assembly and the people of BVI for their patience. As I hope all can appreciate, it is incredibly important to get this right and ensure that BVI remains compliant with international law. I am pleased that we are now at a point where we can move forward, I hope positively, on these bills.
First, I will address the Cannabis Licensing Act 2020 which would enable the licensed cultivation, processing, importation, exportation and sale of cannabis for certain purposes – largely medicinal and therapeutic.
This bill presents potential economic opportunities for the Territory and I applaud the efforts to diversify our economy. I am supportive of BVI investing in new and innovative industries and creating jobs and growth for the people. Therefore, the focus over the past months has been to establish what steps need to be taken for assent to be granted so that any new medical marijuana industry is successful.
Following extensive consultation, we have now received advice from the UK Government’s Home Office. At present, the Home Office acts as the licensing authority for narcotics in BVI, including medical narcotics. The Cannabis Licensing Act would change that, establishing in law a new authority in BVI that would take over this responsibility from the Home Office. For this to happen, BVI and the Home Office need to work together to take preliminary steps to transfer the authority and enter into a Memorandum of Understanding, which is a binding agreement between the two Governments. That way, there can be certainty for all involved that BVI’s new industry will not breach the 1961 Convention or any international law now or in the future.
I have asked officials in the BVI and UK Governments to complete this work together. As these practical steps will be between the BVI Government and the UK government (not the Governor’s Office), I have passed this to the Foreign Secretary. Public officials in the UK stand ready to engage on this and once these steps have taken place, I hope assent can be granted.
At the point when assent is granted, the Territory will have responsibility for ensuring its own compliance with international laws relating to this matter. The authority will need to be fully staffed, creating new jobs and building new capabilities for our people. Its establishment will also be a significant step forward in terms of BVI’s overall self-determination, as BVI takes ownership of a responsibility currently performed by the UK. I look forward to this taking place and to the beginning of a new medical marijuana industry here in BVI.
Next I will update on the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Amendment Act 2020 which would decriminalise possession of small amounts of cannabis and erase some previous convictions.
Similarly, this bill has been given careful consideration to ensure it is fully compliant with international regulations, in consultation with the UK Home Office and with a close eye on evolving international law.
These considerations have been complicated by the increasing number of illegal drugs seizures that have taken place here in recent months – particularly the record-breaking seizure of more than 2,300 kilos of cocaine in early November. Criminal investigations are ongoing, but these instances show that a significant scale of illegal drug trafficking is taking place here. Ministers in the UK are concerned by this and by BVI’s vulnerability to regional organised crime, especially given that the UK holds overall responsibility for BVI’s security and international relationships. I know many others, including myself, share these concerns.
The UK Foreign Secretary wants to give further consideration to this bill to explore the possible effects of decriminalising the possession of a recreational drug – and thereby potentially increasing its trade – at this time. He has therefore instructed me to pass the bill to him for assent, so that he may consider alongside wider factors including the security of the region, the UK’s work in the region and the recent United Nations’ decisions. I expect that once BVI’s licensing authority is fully operational in regulating the medicinal marijuana industry, some of these concerns relating to recreational drugs may be mitigated.
The BVI Constitution gives the Foreign Secretary the power to instruct a Governor in this way. The Foreign Secretary does not use this power lightly, but believes this bill requires further consideration at the most senior levels in London in order to reassure the people of BVI and international partners. His decision to do so is a reflection of the UK Government’s belief that the safety and security of BVI is paramount, which I fully support. It is only right that the highest levels of diligence and care are exercised when it comes to the lives and livelihoods of Virgin Islanders.
These two bills are a reminder of the importance of BVI-UK collaboration on matters that relate to international obligations. In future, considerations and any preliminary steps on such matters should take place whilst the bill is in development, in order to ensure that once a bill is passed by the House and requiring assent, there are no delays.
I will endeavour to keep the people of BVI updated and am extremely grateful to the people and the Government for their patience as both bills were under consideration in the UK. As I said before, UK officials stand ready to start work with BVI in order give the Territory the support we require to make this new industry a success. I am pleased that we are now at a point where we can move forward and hope both bills can receive assent soon.
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