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Legislators in Saint Kitts and Nevis voted unanimously late on Wednesday to approve a package of legislation that would establish the country’s Medicinal Cannabis Authority, expunge the criminal records of persons convicted of cannabis possession, and increase the amount of cannabis proposed for decriminalization.

The legislation, which includes the Cannabis Bill 2020, Drugs Prevention and Abatement of the Misuse and Abuse of Drugs Amendment Bill 2020, and the Criminal Records Rehabilitation of Offenders Amendment Bill 2019, received the support of all members present in the country’s unicameral National Assembly, bringing to fruition months of work toward cannabis reform in the twin-island federation.

This major movement on cannabis law reform is due in part to  a report published last summer by Saint Kitts and Nevis’ National Cannabis Commission. Another catalyst was a High Court judgment that found that the country’s prohibition of the cultivation and possession of cannabis is unconstitutional and an infringement on the “freedom of conscience and religion” of the local Rastafarian community, which opened the door to the creation of the Medicinal Cannabis Authority. 

The Authority will be responsible for granting access to medicinal cannabis as an alternative treatment for various medical conditions, and for implementing a comprehensive licensing scheme to regulate the cultivation and sale of medicinal cannabis.

Prime Minister Timothy Harris, who led the debate in the 15-seat Assembly, said the Authority will be tasked with guiding the strategic direction and governance of the cannabis industry on the islands.

“We are open to taking advantage of new learning in this particular arena. This bill isn’t perfect and we are prepared, as new knowledge unfolds, as we get the benefit of the experience of the application of the law in other jurisdictions, to come back to parliament to ensure the best functioning of the legislation to allow the people of Saint Kitts and Nevis first and foremost to the benefits of this new industry, which we are about to establish,” Harris said during the Assembly discussion of the legislation. 

The package of bills would also establish a traditional cultivator’s license exclusively for citizens of the island that previously cultivated cannabis illegally and create licenses for cultivation and use in registered places of worship. It would also create lounge licenses, which would be used to establish legal places for patients to medicate. Legislators also discussed extending these facilities to the over 160,000 tourists, who visit the country by air annually, and the more than one million cruise ship passengers that stopped on the island in 2018 and 2019, according to data from the country’s Ministry of Tourism.

“This piece of legislation is what’s right for the people of St. Kitts and Nevis. The benefits will come in the build out of a new industry demanding new jobs for our people, providing opportunities for our young people with an interest in science, in technology, in engineering, in mathematics and other sciences including agriculture, to have opportunities for participation,” Harris added.

The country’s Attorney General, Vincent Byron, who initiated the debate on the Criminal Records Bill, said that the decision to decriminalize up to 56 grams of cannabis or up to 15 grams of cannabis resin and make it a ticketable offense—up from the previous amounts of 15 grams of cannabis and 5 grams of cannabis resin decriminalized last July—was in keeping with developments in other islands, such as Trinidad and Tobago, which decriminalized similar amounts in December.

“All people understand that we have to move in a certain direction and to embrace, as it was, the new mores that are evolving in our country and across the globe. At the same time, we have understood that we have to be careful about our international obligations,” Byron said.

The passage of the bills did come with some controversy, however. 

Denzil Douglas, the country’s Opposition Leader, told members of the Assembly during the debate that the legislation didn’t fully follow the ruling of the Court and only “complicates, rather than simplifies” the legality of cannabis use. According to Douglas, who eventually supported the Bill with minor amendments, the government should have established ownership quotas that would guarantee a local stake in all companies in the industry. Douglas also asserted that lawmakers only chose to bring the legislation before the Assembly because of a general election in the country later this year, which both Byron and other members of the government refuted.

According to Byron, the expunging of the criminal records of citizens charged under previous laws was planned long before the election that is due in the second half of 2020, and is in line with recommendation of Commission’s report.

The bills will come into effect within weeks pending the signature of the country’s Governor-General, Samuel Weymouth Tapley Seaton.

The passage of the legislation makes Saint Kitts one of only four countries in the region to have an established framework for the cultivation of cannabis. It, however, takes place against the backdrop of a region that is quickly moving to loosen restrictions on cannabis, or ganja, as it is commonly referred to in the region. 

Trinidad and Tobago’s government decriminalized the possession of cannabis in December and is currently mulling regulation for its licensing regime, along with Barbados, which regulated the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes in January.

Further afield, Jamaica, which decriminalized possession in 2015, recently established a system to integrate traditional farmers into its medicinal and export industry plans, while Saint Vincent and the Grenadines began issuing licenses to local and international businesses for the commercial cultivation of cannabis in July.