Pubdate: Thu, 23 Aug 2012
Source: Virgin Islands Daily News, The (VI)
Copyright: 2012 Virgin Islands Daily News
Author: Lou Mattei


ST. THOMAS - Proponents of legalizing cannabis scored a victory but 
suffered one narrow loss Wednesday in the V.I. Legislature.

Sen. Terrence Nelson proposed two cannabis-related measures that hit 
the Senate floor ednesday. The separate bills would have put the 
following yes-or-no questions to voters on the November General 
Election ballot:

Are you in favor of the Legislature enacting legislation that allows 
for the production, processing, manufacturing and distributing of 
industrial hemp in the Virgin Islands?

Are you in favor of the Legislature enacting legislation that allows 
for the licensing and regulation of medicinal marijuana patients, 
care-givers, cultivators and distribution centers?

Come November, voters may get a chance to answer the first, but not 
the second, of these questions.

The medicinal marijuana proposal died in a 6-6 tie, with Sen. Nereida 
Rivera-O'Reilly and Sen. Patrick Simeon Sprauve not voting and Sen. 
Craig Barshinger absent from the session. Senators Carlton Dowe, 
Neville James, Usie Richards, Celestino White Sr., Janette Millin 
Young and Alvin Williams Jr. voted no.

Senators Shawn-Michael Malone, Alicia Hansen, Louis Hill, Ronald 
Russell, Sammuel Sanes and Nelson voted yes.

The hemp proposal passed 10-4 with Barshinger absent. Dowe, Hansen, 
Williams and Millin Young voted no.

Rivera-O'Reilly, Sprauve, James, Richards, White, Malone, Hill, 
Russell, Sanes and Nelson voted yes.

The votes followed more than a week of public discussion on the issue 
after the Senate's Committee of the Whole conducted hearings last 
week on St. Thomas and St. Croix to solicit input on the cannabis questions.

Nelson began the session Wednesday by saying he had been "demonized" 
by a St. Croix pastor for introducing the bills.

"I, too, am a man of God, so that's the word, and I will speak the 
word," Nelson said. "It's OK to be against a piece of legislation, 
but I will not be demonized."

Nelson reiterated that the nonbinding bills would only ask voters 
whether the Senate should pursue legislation on either issue.

"I want for you all to get off this taboo about quote-unquote 
marijuana," Nelson said.

Supporters rallied around Nelson's message that putting the question 
to voters prior to pursuing any legislation would allow the people to 
answer the question as democratically as possible. Some, including 
Nelson and Hill, also questioned why marijuana is illegal in the first place.

But several senators remained firm in their opposition to one or both 
of the proposals, especially the medicinal marijuana question.

"In the words of my son, who's 19 years old, this is a slippery slope 
that we are not ready to climb," RiveraO'Reilly said.

Rivera-O'Reilly, who did not vote on the medicinal marijuana question 
but voted in favor the industrial hemp question, listed a number of 
concerns with medicinal marijuana. Allowing marijuana to be used in 
this way could open the door to complete legalization or the 
increased use of marijuana, she said. Marijuana also remains illegal 
under federal law and could lead to absenteeism or a lack of 
productivity in the workplace, Rivera-O'Reilly said.

The discussion stopped well in advance of the vote on the measures to 
make way for lengthy debate over several amendments to a different bill.

Leading up to the session, Paul Chakroff, executive director of the 
St. Croix Environmental Association, made one of the most compelling 
cases in favor of legalizing industrial hemp. Chakroff said hemp is 
an environmentally friendly alternative to synthetic materials for 
things such as clothes and shopping bags, and it has a potential use 
as a biofuel.

In an interview last week, Chakroff said it would take a team of 
agricultural economists to fully assess the impact of using some of 
the 4,000 suitable acres on St. Croix for cultivating industrial 
hemp. But he also pointed out that the federal Drug Enforcement 
Administration, at least for now, does not recognize the difference 
between a hemp plant and a marijuana plant.

After the vote, Nelson said that though he was disappointed both 
measures had not passed - "I just can't see why anyone would want to 
deny the people a chance to express their voice" - he hopes the 
governor "sees the wisdom" in promoting industrial hemp and will sign 
the bill so voters can answer the question in November. The governor 
has 10 days to either sign the industrial hemp bill or return it to the Senate.

Nelson chalked up the lack of support in the Legislature for the 
medicinal marijuana bill to "cowardice" from senators afraid to 
support a controversial initiative.

Rivera-O'Reilly said she struggled with her decision not to support 
the medicinal marijuana bill, but she felt it poses too much risk as 
a gateway drug with too little upside. Industrial hemp, on the other 
hand, could be heavily regulated and provide an economic spark to the 
territory, she said.

Messages left Wednesday afternoon for the other senators who 
abstained or voted against the medicinal marijuana legislation but 
voted for the industrial hemp bill were not returned.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom