EDITORIAL: Where do we apply for a ‘pot’ license?

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For the past few months, marijuana has been a hot topic of conversation, ever since the push for legislation has been met with some degree of agreement by the administration. Earlier this year, a law allowing the private use of up to 15 grammes of cannabis came into force in our bit of paradise following passage of the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Act of 2018 in the Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament and the subsequent publication in the official gazette of Antigua and Barbuda, which actually was an electronic posting on gazette.gov.ag.
So, if we read this new law correctly, there is no penalty for possessing 15 grammes of cannabis or less; however, its public use is still restricted, which according to the law, “A public place means any structure, facility, or space used for gathering individuals, or open to public or any other similar space accessible to the public which would include bars, drinking places, restaurants, clubs …” But there is more. Not only is small possession okay, but also households are now allowed to grow up to four cannabis plants.
At this point, there is still a bit of a division on whether this was a good move or a bad move, and with conflicting research and evidence out there, the only real answer is: time will tell. As we wait for time to give us the clarity of hindsight, we note that the Government taking this talk of marijuana one step further and is seeking to expand the laws to enter the world of medical marijuana. Yes, plans are afoot to go to Parliament by the end of this year to pass laws allowing for the growing, harvesting, processing and selling of medical marijuana.
This is big business and, if executed correctly, it has the potential to make a major impact on our economy, so at the very least it is worth investigating. To see how far marijuana has come, it was recently announced that Former Speaker of the United States’ House of Representatives, John Boehner had joined the advisory board for a cannabis company called Acreage Holdings. That’s right. Boehner has gone from being vocally anti-marijuana and railing against the dangers of ‘pot’ to making a call for the herb to be legalised at a federal level. According to Boehner, “My thinking on cannabis has evolved,” while adding that marijuana should be decriminalised “so we can do research, help our veterans, and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities.” What a turn-around for this conservative republican. 
If you are wondering why, medical marijuana is the new gold rush. According to analysts at Cowen and Co., the legal cannabis industry is estimated to be worth approximately $6 billion in annual sales. They estimate another $25 billion in black market sales, and if everything transitions to the legal market, the industry could be worth $50 billion by 2026. Some industry experts think that it could pose a serious threat to the $200 billion alcohol industry. 
Note that we are talking only in billions. But to understand what this all means for a government, we can look at Colorado, which was one of earliest test markets in the United States. In 2016, marijuana sales rose by 30 percent and generated $200 million in tax revenue from $1.3 billion in sales. In Washington state, which legalised recreational marijuana since 2014, the industry generated $2 million in tax revenues its first year compared with the then $30 million from beer sales. A year later, in 2015, cannabis rocketed to $65 million in tax revenue versus a slight increase in the beer tax to $31 million.
So, there is a lot of money at stake, and the devil will be in the details. The government must establish a licensing regime that is transparent and fair. This cannot become a ‘get rich quick’ scheme for political cronies who get an automatic promotion to the front of the line. This has the potential to become a golden-egg-laying goose, and we should not get it derailed by even the perception of a corrupt licensing regime. The proposed board that is to be established to issues licenses to local farmers should make all attempts to be politically neutral and provide the wealth opportunities to locals. There is really no need to hear about foreigners coming to our shores to grow herb. Happy for the expertise, but expertise is something that we can buy. It is not something that should buy us.
We have already heard about Canadian “experts” being given an audience with the Cabinet, and that is fine because the Canadians know a thing or two about the industry, but there was no specific talk of it being a government contingent to aid with setting up laws and the administration of licenses. Then there was talk about “one of the experts in the group has promised to return to Antigua in a few weeks in order to provide further assistance with the realisation of the new revenue-raising method which will be pursued vigorously.” Hmmm!?! What does that mean? Already, we are suffering from a lack of information.
This is one of those things that is too important to get wrong. Unlike renewable energy, and hotels, and roads, and … (well, you get the point) let’s get this one right and ensure that locals drive this industry. Let us not give away the golden goose because we think that we cannot do this right or others will do it better. It happens all too often and it must stop.
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