Another step towards legalising marijuana for medicine and religion

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Legalising marijuana (cannabis) for medicinal, religious and sacramental purposes is on the agenda for discussion at tomorrow’s sitting of the House of Representatives, as the Cannabis Bill 2018 will be read for the second and third times.
 This is in keeping with the government’s promise to develop medical and other marijuana related industries both for local and international consumption.
The 54-page Bill, to be moved by the Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin, is divided into five parts: Cannabis for sacramental and religious purposes; Cannabis for medicinal purposes – part 1, with access to medicinal purposes serving as part 2; Licensing the supply of medicinal cannabis; Offences (general prohibitions and prohibitions relating to authorised healthcare professional) and; Appeals.
Also of note, is the fact that the proposed legislation keeps six considerations as priority: Ensuring that Antigua and Barbuda keeps within the protocol of the International Drug Conventions; The Medicinal Benefits to the Population; The Economic benefits to the population; The Social Justice benefits to the population; Ensuring the constitutional right of the population to freely practice one’s religion is upheld and; Immediately drastically reducing with the intent to totally eliminate the black market supply of cannabis through satisfying the population’s demand via a controlled, regulated medicinal market.
According to the Bill, there are employment opportunities to be derived as a result of this new industry, while the country stands to benefit from taxes and duties imposed on what is to be a “heavily regulated medicinal cannabis market.” The government further expects to earn more revenues through dividends.
The introductory paragraph to the Bill states that it is to be, “AN ACT to provide for the regulation and control of cannabis for religious use, by documented members of registered religious organisations, to uphold the constitutional rights afforded to each citizen of Antigua and Barbuda.”
And it adds that the law seeks “to provide for the regulation and control of cannabis for medicinal and scientific use within Antigua and Barbuda.”
The law will therefore see the establishment of the Antigua and Barbuda Medicinal Cannabis Authority whose functions will be described therein, to authorise medicinal and alternative health practitioners to recommend medicinal cannabis and to establish scientific research protocol for medicinal cannabis.
Approved Alternative Health Care Professionals with authority to prescribe or administer medicinal marijuana are the ones to whom residents would have to turn and such professionals must be properly certified in any of the following alternative health disciplines: Naturopathic Doctor; Doctor of Chiropractic; Master of Acupuncture or oriental medicine; Physical Therapist; Doctor of Ayurvedic Medicine; Homeopathic Doctor and Nutritionists.
The proposed law also states that an “Authorized health care professional” means any medicinal doctor, veterinarian, dental surgeon or approved alternative health care practitioner, “that is authorized by the Authority”.
While, an “Authorized Patient” means a person “in possession of an authorized recommendation and Medicinal Patient Identification Card”; and “Authority” means the Antigua and Barbuda Medicinal Cannabis Authority that will be responsible for the administration, implementation and management of the Act and is created for the purpose of regulating and controlling the licensing of the cultivation, manufacture, processing, extraction, import, export, testing, research, distribution, and sale of Medicinal Cannabis.
On the issue of prohibitions relating to an Authorised Healthcare Professional, the draft legislation says such a person shall not hold a direct or indirect economic interest in any operation or facility which supplies medicinal cannabis, if he is engaged in prescribing medicinal cannabis or is in a partnership with an Authorized Healthcare Professional who prescribes medicinal cannabis.
Neither can such a professional serve on the board of directors of a facility which supplies medicinal cannabis; nor would they be permitted to issue a medicinal cannabis recommendation for his benefit or for the benefit of any member of his family.
 The Cannabis Bill 2018 says, “An Authorized Healthcare Professional who contravenes any of the provisions of subsection (1) commits an offence and is liable on conviction in a Magistrate’s Court to a fine not exceeding one hundred thousand dollars or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years.”
In the interest of due process and fairness, an Appeals Tribunal is to be established under the Cannabis Act and it shall consist of not less than five nor more than seven members “all of whom shall be appointed by the Governor-General for specific hearings and who shall hold office for the duration of such hearings until the hearing is completed.”
Meanwhile, there’s also a section in the proposed Act that says a licensing structure and complete tracking system for medicinal cannabis businesses will be established.
The framework for regulation or “Antigua Cannabis Tracking System” is aimed at continuously carrying out a seed to sale Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) monitoring system that will be used to conform with international regulations and to prevent diversion. 
The government said it is well aware of international obligations as well as the illicit drug trade, thus the Bill and other related legislation, such as the Misuse of Drugs Act, will see to it that the clamp down continues in every aspect as it relates to the black market to ensure that the illegal sale, distribution and use of the drug do not prosper.
Additionally, one of the benefits of stifling the Black Market, according to the Bill, is how it will affect the Social Justice perspective.
The Bill states, “Recognising that Cannabis possession represents a high number of cases within the magistrate courts of our judiciary system, and that a lot of young citizens are especially affected due to this non-violent criminal offence preventing them access to tertiary education, we see the need to treat with cannabis possession as a public health issue as opposed to a criminal issue, thereby easing both the caseload on the courts and the country’s expenditure in treating with these issues as criminal, as well as also freeing the time of the police service that can be concentrated on more serious crimes.”
In the Explanatory Memorandum, the drafters of the Bill caution that, “This Bill must not be deemed in any manner to advocate, authorize, promote or legally or socially accept the use of cannabis for non-medicinal or non-scientific use or for unauthorized religious use. In cognizance of this, the Bill provides for strict regulatory framework so as to ensure the effective and efficient implementation of the provisions of the Bill.”
The development of this Bill came after the government embarked on national consultations with Rastafarians, community groups, NGO’s, Churches, The Medical Association, Teachers Union, Bar Association, National Youth Council, Substance Abuse Department among other organisations.
It started before the government decriminalised possession of 15 grammes of cannabis by any person older than 18 years. This was done under the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Act, 2018, published in the Official Gazette on March 5.
That law also makes it lawful to cultivate up to four cannabis plants per household and expunges marijuana convictions involving possession of cannabis weighing 15 grammes and below.
The amendment stopped short of legalisation, however, as it does not remove legal penalties for the sale of cannabis.
Under the law, smoking marijuana is also prohibited in public places, including bars, restaurants and tourist establishments. While, tourist establishments are allowed to set aside “open areas” where guests can smoke cannabis.
With the Cannabis Bill now on the table, and the aforementioned amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act, Antigua and Barbuda is following other Caribbean nations down the path to decriminalisation and legal medical cannabis.
Three years ago, Jamaica passed the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act 2015, otherwise known as the amended “Ganja Law”, which decriminalised possession of two ounces or less of cannabis. This was made a ticketable offence. The law also legalised possession for medical or therapeutic purposes.
Medical cannabis imports and sales were approved in the neighbouring Cayman Islands two years ago.

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