House of Assembly (File photograph by Akil Simmons)
More than half of the House of Assembly’s 36 MPs contributed to yesterday’s debate on the Cannabis Licensing Act 2020.
Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General and legal affairs minister, started the debate and claimed that the Act was a push back against a colonial mindset that had set out to “demonise and criminalise blacks”.
But she added that a regulatory framework would also provide economic opportunities.
Ms Simmons said: “We need radical new thinking – increasingly legalisation is not that radical at all.”
“The totality of the proposed legislation provides for better effective regulatory control to displace the illicit market and full economic access at a time when families are suffering and looking for new economic opportunities. It will provide the greatest good for the greatest number.”
But Scott Pearman, the shadow minister for legal affairs, disagreed, and claimed that few people would benefit from financial opportunities.
He said: “This bill is about the licensing of cannabis. In short, this Bill is really about who controls the manufacture, importation, and supply of cannabis in Bermuda.
Simply put, this bill is about money – cold hard cash. And, ultimately, it is about who gets that money. This bill is about corporate cannabis. And licences, as we all know, are about control. Licences are about cost.
“It is about the commercialisation of cannabis. About a licensing system to dictate where the money will go. And who gets the money.
“So, yes, the bill is about the licensing of cannabis because, ultimately, this bill is about who gets the cash.
“If you are concerned that the increased use of drugs will lead to increased addiction, then this bill is not for you. Bermuda already has substantial addiction issues. Bermuda already has insufficiently supported addiction issues. If we have significant addiction issues before this bill, then what does our community look like after this bill passes the House?
“Like many, many others in Bermuda, I have witnessed personally the damage that addiction can do. The damage that addiction can do to the life of the addict, the damage that addiction can do to the lives of those who love that addict.
“For people who have been there, who have seen the sadness and the depravity, who have experienced the lies, the tears, the breakdown and the damage that addiction can cause – cause to anyone who just slips, then this Bill is not for you.”
Mr Pearman asked: “So if this bill is not for all of the people I have mentioned, if this bill is not for people from all sides of the cannabis debate, then who is this bill for?
“Who will be ’Mr. Big’ in terms of the manufacture, importation and supply of cannabis?
As I have said, this bill about the creation of a licensing system for ‘corporate cannabis’. Who will be the shareholders of that company? Will this be a monopoly?“
Dennis Lister III, of the Progressive Labour Party, said it was time for the law to change.
“If I look up the definition of insanity it says doing the same thing and getting the same result.
“We’ve been doing the same thing for 70 years. It’s mind-blowing. This has harmed young black men caught with a small joint. The time has come for change and redemption.”
Jamahl Simmons, a Government backbencher, said he did not think the Act went far enough.
But he added: “Leadership demands making a decision and having the guts to stick with it.
“While we’re not that early to this dance, at least the music is still playing and the opportunity is there for us to take it.
“It’s about freedom. But with freedom, comes more responsibility. A free-for-all is not where we want to be at this time.
“With more freedom, and more opportunities, and chances to do better and live differently, we also have to exhibit more discipline.
“As a people we’ve found many ways to self medicate. We must investigate further why so many people feel the need to medicate themselves. But we must also look at self discipline as well.
“Is this a perfect document? I would be the first to say ‘no it’s not’. But ‘perfect’ must not be the enemy to good.”
Vance Campbell, a PLP backbencher, said he had questions, including some on the banking of proceeds from a cannabis industry and that he hoped that the Attorney-General could explain the process.
Lovitta Foggo, also a PLP MP, said she was a science and health teacher and used to take her pupils to meet people affected by drug addiction.
Ms Foggo added: “They got to meet those who abused and misused drugs and could speak to them first-hand about the serious impact of abuse and misuse.”
She said she supported aspects of the bill that aimed to prevent the criminalisation of Black people.
Ms Foggo added she would be willing to work with the Attorney-General to “take the legislation forward” and emphasised the importance of ensuring the community is fully educated about all aspects of marijuana use.
Diallo Rabain, the Minister of Education, accused the OBA of using scare tactics during the debate.
He said: “Luckily our people see through it.”
Mr Rabain said that cannabis laws were aimed at “criminalising … and unfairly disenfranchising our Black population”.
He added: “It has been reported time and time again. I am proud to stand here and see another PLP pledge come into fruition.”
He added that money raised from a regulated industry and saved from arrests and court cases could be used for educational campaigns.
Mr Rabain said: “A responsible government makes changes responsibly.”
Michael Dunkley, an OBA backbencher, said that both parties had struggled with cannabis reform “as we all have divergent views”.
He added he was a backer of medical cannabis use but was “taken aback” by the Attorney-General’s comment that the drug was part of Bermuda’s culture.
Mr Dunkley said: “I have never seen us celebrate it as part of Heritage Month. I don’t think that is something we should say is part of our culture. It is a challenge we have to deal with today.”
He said he had never supported the legalisation of cannabis but backed decriminalisation because of the problems faced by segments of the Black population.
He highlighted the views of Peter Perinchief, the founder Edgewood Paediatric Services, that were brains were not fully developed until about 25 and pointed out that the Bill stipulated the legal age for a licence and for use was 21.
Mr Dunkley said: “There are still a number of years to go.”
He added that a black market would still exist in Bermuda and he had not heard enough about how that would be tackled.
He said: “I don’t think that the economic boom is going to be there. Everyone is going to want to do it and there is only so much to go around.”
Derrick Burgess, the Deputy Speaker of the House, said he was concerned for young people.
He added: “I am against increasing any elements to our society that will cause us a problem I am talking about the protection of children.”
Susan Jackson, an OBA backbencher, said she was also concerned about children.
She added: “My concern is exposure to cannabis more broadly. I feel the same way about exposure to alcohol and tobacco.”
She said that she was concerned about those who use marijuana to self medicate and emphasised that it was crucial that education and support was provided.
Ms Jackson, who works in financial services, added she had concerns about the difficulties that could arise in banking the cash from cannabis establishments.
She questioned if it would be a “cash heavy” industry if there were limitations on cashless transactions and, if so, if there could be an increase in robberies and violent crime.
Tinee Furbert, the Minister for Social Development and Seniors, said it was important to create educational and treatment programmes and that there was a regulatory framework.
Craig Cannonier, of the OBA, said he was supportive of the Act, but that he was not confident that Bermudians would be able to take advantage of the economic opportunities.
He added: “Cannabis is not going anywhere, certainly not now with the discovery of all of the benefits.
“The question is, how do we manage it going forward? This bill is trying to answer the question. We know it’s not going anywhere – it’s being discussed at dinner table – and some people who might not have considered using it now are considering it.
“This is a natural herb and the question is how do we manage the great medicinal potential? There’s still a large part of this plant that still needs to be understood. We still need to go a long way in educating the public in all of the aspects of cannabis.
“Smoking improves communication so perhaps we should all have a little smoke before we debate this.
“The cost of growing cannabis is going to be high and so the fellow who’s selling it underground, who’s already importing it, will continue to thrive, and I have a problem with that.”
“It appears that we will be concentrating more on Black entrepreneurship than White and if that is the case if this should be predominantly run by blacks just say so. I’m concerned about the Black community and what we’re doing to each other.
“When we start talking about social injustice we need to be keenly aware of what we’re doing to each other. Because I saw who was selling cannabis to my father. We need to fess up that we have been doing each other wrong.
“We need to sit down, have a smoke maybe, and communicate about how we go forward.
But Government backbencher Zane DeSilva accused Mr Cannonier of being negative.
He said: “We want to support entrepreneurship and new entrepreneurs and in particular Black entrepreneurs,” he said.
“This legislation is about creating opportunities. My hope is that we can push it through quickly so we can create opportunities for our people.
“Our plan is to give our people hope. There are millions of dollars being spent on drugs being spent on drugs in this country.
“I am against any kind of smoke that one inhales. There are a lot of people that smoke weed in our country and I would say it is part of our culture.”
Mr DeSilva said the law could transform Bermuda into a magnet for “the tourist who loves to travel and smoke”.
Another Government backbencher, Christopher Famous, said the Act reflected voters’ views.
He added: “There has never been a bill that has pleased everyone. As elected officials we have to know the pulse of the community. People are going to say we’re bringing the Devil into Bermuda and others will say we’re too conservative.
“This isn’t simply about marijuana. This is about colonialism.”
Scott Simmons, the Government Whip, applauded the Attorney General for her stand.
He said: “Sometimes, when it comes to making big decisions, it takes a big person, a big government.
“If the people of Bermuda ask you to do certain things you have to meet those requirements. This has been a big issue for a long time.
“As a Bermudian Black male in this country, I confess that I have never smoked marijuana.
“But I believe that although I have not smoked it, I have had an opportunity to experience the effects of marijuana one way or another. This issue has affected everyone in this country.
“We need to manage the laws so that it is no longer an impediment to our young people so we must do something about it.
“We have a responsibility to address the issues within. We have to do the difficult stuff. We have to look at the difficult issues. We can’t ignore it and in doing something we enable the country to put something to bed.
Jarion Richardson, the Opposition Whip, pointed out that just 200 words of the 64-page Act addressed colonialism.
He said: “What we are talking about is a licensing regime for a commodity into the Bermuda market.
“You can definitely tell that were all coming from a different place on this legislation, which is very complex.”
He also questioned how easy it would be for Bermudians to go into the cannabis business – and asked if Whites would be excluded.
Mr Richardson said: “Anyone who has set up a business is aware that this is no easy task. Just incorporating a company is unpleasant on a good day, and quite expensive.
“The regulatory regimes, as much as they can be reassuring, they can be deeply troubling for someone who is going to work in that space.
“If our interest is in remedying historic injustice then will it be a case of, if you’re a certain colour than don’t bother applying for a licence?
Cole Simons, the Opposition leader, said it was ironic that the minister in charge of drug prevention had been tasked with building an infrastructure for the sale of cannabis.
He added: “You wonder why people have concerns about this legislation.”
Mr Simons said he was concerned about some of the negative aspects of cannabis use.
He asked: “How is this going to enhance the next generation?
“If we have committed so much to commercialisation of cannabis, we need to have support for the industry and support for those who find themselves in challenging positions.
“The use if cannabis in this country is so prevalent – it’s almost a way of life. But we have also seen the devastating impact that cannabis has had on this country.
“The more we relax cannabis use in this country, you will find drug rehabilitation increasing, and hospitalisation increasing and psychosis in young people increasing, and brain damage in young persons.
“We are providing a green card for the use of marijuana for 21-year-olds whose minds are still developing.
“If we are going to expand the industry and commercialise the industry we need to commit more resources to supporting those who have been negatively impacted by the industry.”
Mr Simons added: “Given that we have a Black population it saddens me that we have Black entrepreneurs that are going to provide cannabis to other Black people in this country. Black on Black.
“No one can tell me that, other than for medicinal marijuana which is legal now, this legalisation will not negatively impact young people.
“I understand Black empowerment and entrepreneurship. My question is at what cost?”