Mixed Reactions as Barbados Prepares to Debate a Medical Cannabis Bill

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Barbados is inching toward regulating the use of medical cannabis on the Caribbean island as it considers a Medicinal Cannabis Industry Bill, which was presented to Parliament last week. 

The proposed reform has been met with mixed reactions. Local economists have described this and other legislative developments and proposals as steps in the right direction, while religious groups and advocates have expressed disappointment that the legislative measures fail to include exemptions for “recreational” or religious use and maintain a range of penalties such as fines or imprisonment.

If the bill becomes law, Barbados will join several other Caribbean countries, including Jamaica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda, in approving cannabis cultivation. Trinidad and Tobago’s government is set to publish its own proposed bill on decriminalization in September and St. Kitts and Nevis also moving toward cannabis law reform, as Cannabis Wire recently reported.

The bill in Barbados has a high chance of passing in Parliament, since the ruling Barbados Labour Party campaigned on cannabis reform as a part of its agenda and won. The party currently holds a twenty-nine to one majority, in a country where representatives traditionally vote on party lines, and won’t face another election until 2023. 

In a 2014 poll conducted by the Caribbean Development Research Services, 43% of Barbadians admitted to using cannabis at some point. Public opinion has also shifted significantly over the last few years, with just 37% of people polled in 2016 stating that they wanted to keep the current restrictive laws in place in 2016, compared to 73% in 2008.

Despite the public polling, the debate surrounding the legalization—or even decriminalization—of cannabis in Barbados has been contentious. The country’s current government, elected in May 2018, had originally proposed in December a referendum to legalize small quantities of cannabis for personal use, and Prime Minister Mia Mottley said during the reading of the country’s 2019-2020 National Budget this spring that steps would be taken toward the establishment of a cannabis industry.

However, such a step faced strong opposition from a coalition of the country’s Christian community, the Barbados Road Safety Association, and even members of the governing party who pressured the government into rethinking its position. 

Nonetheless, speaking before the publishing of the bill, Barbados’ Attorney General Dale Marshall was optimistic that the current bill wouldn’t face the opposition that previous proposals did.

The details

Separately from the bill, officials at the state-run Barbados Drug Service have issued a request for proposals from companies both within Barbados and internationally to supply the body with medical cannabis products, from April 2020 through March 2022. The Drug Service will accept bids until August 26 for five approved products:

  • Nabiximols oral spray with 2.7 milligrams of THC and 2.5 milligrams of CBD per 100-milliliter spray (e.g., Sativex)
  • Cannabidiol purified oral solution (example, Epidiolex)
  • Nabilone (capsules)
  • Dronabinol (capsules)
  • Cannabinoid non-psychoactive (example, Anabasum capsules)

Although those products can’t be produced within the country under the current legal framework, the country’s Minister of Health and Wellness, Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Bostic, has previously granted the Drug Service approval to make similar purchases. 

The bill, which will be debated later this month, would create a Medicinal Cannabis Licensing Authority, a Medicinal Cannabis Licensing Board, and a Medicinal Cannabis Appeals Tribunal, which together would oversee the issuing of licenses for medical cannabis businesses. 

The text of the law, which includes no timeline for implementation, tasks the Authority with determining fees for licenses, with a view to “prescribe codes of practice to be observed by licensees or other persons involved in the medicinal cannabis industry.”

Barbados’ Medical Cannabis Bill is somewhat similar to those established by authorities across the Caribbean, and proposes three tiers of cultivator licenses: Tier 1 will allow cultivation on up to one acre of cannabis; Tier 2 will allow up to five acres; and Tier 3 grants permission for more than 5 acres. A cultivator licence, irrespective of the Tier, will be valid for just one year, according to the proposal, with no provisions offered for automatic renewal. Any company or individual holding licenses for cultivation may reapply annually, three months before the expiration of the license.  

Other licenses, which are also subject to annual renewals, include:

  • Processor (Tier 1 allows for up to 200 square metres of space, and Tier 2 is more than that), for the creation of products like “edibles and other derivatives”
  • Retail Distributor, for dispensing to patients
  • Pharmacy, also for dispensing to patients
  • Import and Export
  • Transport
  • Research and Development, for individuals or organizations who seeks to conduct “scientific research for the purpose of improving or further developing cannabis for medical purposes, therapeutic or scientific purposes”
  • Laboratory, “which shall be issued to allow for the conduct of testing and analytical services for the purpose of improving or further developing medicinal cannabis.”

While no details have been published about the cost of these proposed licenses, Barbados’ Caribbean neighbor St. Vincent set prices ranging from 2.67 million Eastern Caribbean dollars (just under USD $1 million) for Class E licenses, which allows for the cultivation of land of between 100 to 300 acres, to 100,000 Eastern Caribbean (about USD $37,000) for Class A, which allows for the cultivation of up to one acre. St. Vincent has granted more than fifty  licenses with more expected to be granted later this year.

Jeremy Stephen, a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the West Indies’ Cave Hill Campus, has projected annual revenues for the Barbadian industry of between 27 million Barbadian Dollars (USD $13,372,625) to 135 million Barbadian Dollars (USD $66,863,128) from consumption taxes, import duties, and the issuing of licenses within the cannabis industry.

Stephen, who co-authored a paper titled Economic Model of the Incremental Approach of Medical Marijuana Legislation in Barbados earlier this year, told Cannabis Wire that while the research isn’t a precise measure of the potential industry, he believes it offers a good guide to the possible economic rewards of going forward with medical cannabis.

Judicial Reform 

What about non-medical cannabis? Under current Barbadian law, any individual who possesses any amount of cannabis for personal use can be fined up to a staggering 250,000 Barbadian Dollars (USD $112,343), or face imprisonment of up to five years. Individuals in possession of more than fifteen grams of cannabis, or any other illegal drug, can be charged with “trafficking” and face up to life in prison.

The text of the proposed bill lowers the maximum fine somewhat, with a fine of up to $100,000 (USD $49,375) or ten years in jail for any person charged with unlawful possession, sale, and cultivation of cannabis. Legal recipients of cannabis will also face similar penalties if they redistribute cannabis or any derivatives received under the provisions of the legislation.

Reco Blackman, resident of the Barbados Students Committee at the Hugh Wooding Law School, told Cannabis Wire that many people in Barbados feel the government could have gone a step further with the legislation.

“I wouldn’t go as far as saying I am disappointed, these are exciting times for the island. … The proposals will help the island’s economy sure,” he said, adding, “Many still feel, however, that we should focus on avoiding the harshest criminal penalties for these non-violent offenses.”  

He said the country has a number of people in jail for possession of small quantities of cannabis, and it should give its judiciary “avenues for getting them released and eliminating the financial, legal, and social burden on the state of having them face the Courts and ultimately incarcerating them.”

Barbados spent more than 35 million Barbadian Dollars (USD $17,334,885) between 2009 and 2014 to incarcerate persons for drug-related offenses, according to a study published by the country’s Criminal Justice Research and Planning Unit in 2015. 

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