By Orville Williams
After raising the alarm over the disclosure of a more than quarter-million-dollar cannabis licensing fee, residents may welcome the news of an adjustment to fees – specifically for locals – set to come early next month.
A post-Cabinet report in late January stated that the fee for a licence within the local cannabis sector was US$325,000 and that there was an agreement by Cabinet members for no waivers to be granted.
This almost immediately drew the ire of many residents, who argued that the costly fee would prevent the average man from entering the industry, in favour of wealthier, more privileged individuals or foreign investment.
However, the CEO of the Medicinal Cannabis Authority, Algernon Roberts, sought to quell those fears during an Observer AM interview this week, assuring that changes are afoot.
“[At] this parliamentary session, the major changes to the Substances Act will be made [and] once that is complete, the regulations will then be signed off by the [Legal Affairs] Minister. So, hopefully by let’s say the first week in March, you will see significant changes to the fees in relation to the local population”
Roberts explained further, that – understanding the concerns from residents – a genuine attempt was being made to ensure that they have fair access to a slice of the pie.
“What we’re trying to do with the new fees – I couldn’t really disclose it [in the past], because parliament had not done what they were supposed to do as yet – to [make it] different than what it is [now] for the locals.
“The fees are going to change more so for the locals. There are also some adjustments on the foreign investor, but most of the changes [are for] the local population – and there’s a reason for that; [it’s to] make more local individuals become involved in the whole [medicinal cannabis industry] process.
“Local ownership is pivotal to the whole process. You cannot have [for example] King Frank-I and [the Rastafari community] that suffered so much over this period, and then you have total outside investors coming to take the whole market,” Roberts explained.
In reinforcing his point about the importance of local investment, the CEO disclosed that the provisional licence that was previously reported to have been issued, was given to a local group from “right here in Antigua”, for cultivation purposes. He added that, “we’re about to issue a next one – the decision is already made – and this is also a local group”.
While the post-Cabinet report stated that the US$325,000 was a licence fee, Roberts also clarified that the figure was actually in reference to the application fee, which is different from a licence fee.
“For each one of the [business components], there is a separate fee. The US$325,000 is the application fee for an integrated business – [that is] one that seeks to do multiple medicinal cannabis business activities – [and] it also took into consideration a nominal amount of staff.
“For that example, when we add the licensing fees with a nominal amount of staff, it came up to US$405,000, [so] when you add those two [fees] you get US$730,000.
“Within the Caribbean, other countries have issued [combined] licence and application fees of US$1 million – it means that we have a competitive advantage when you compare [us] to some of our neighbours.”
The adjustment to the fees for locals will likely be of the most importance to the public, but there are some other changes meant to be made that will disturb the reported operations of some already existing businesses.
“In relation to the amendments, what happened is that even though there was agreement by Cabinet – based on our recommendations – that we’re going to bring down the fees, there were several other things in the law that the authority believes should have been [included].
“For example, we have these massage places within Antigua and we all know that they’re also using medicinal cannabis products to do the massages. In other societies, those are regulated by the medicinal cannabis authority. So, we are moving toward regulating those individuals [as well],” Roberts disclosed.
More information on the changes to local fees will probably not come for another few weeks and until then residents will still be sceptical, given the state of the economy and the ongoing spread of the coronavirus.
Roberts explained that the reason for the high fees is due to the need for adherence to international standards, which require significant investment on a global scale. He issued a bit of advice, however, for those locals who remain concerned about the substantial financial requirements.
“One of the issues that we’re facing as a people is that we’re not [readily] willing to get into partnerships and as soon as we see something, we will say that that is prohibitive for us to get into the business.
“Partnership is the key to success in this business, because even if the government brings down the fees [for] the local population, it is [still] an expensive enterprise to get involved in. Unless one man has a very deep pocket, he is going to have significant hurdles to overcome.”
The Antigua and Barbuda Medicinal Cannabis Authority was established under the Cannabis Bill 2018 and is tasked with overseeing and regulating the medicinal cannabis industry in Antigua and Barbuda, as well as overseeing research and development that is critical to advance the industry.