Saipan — The road to marijuana legalization in the CNMI recently made an unexpected U-turn after the House of Representatives sent the legislation back to the judicial and governmental operations committee, citing a constitutional impediment. In their June 12 session, House members noted that Senate Bill 20-62, the “Cannabis Act,” in its current form, is not consistent with the CNMI Constitution, which provides that all revenue-generating legislation must come from the lower chamber.
Introduced by Sen. Sixto K. Igisomar (R-Saipan), SB 20-62 aims to legalize medicinal and recreational use of marijuana — a proposal that stirs a fervent debate. While lawmakers tackle the constitutional issue related to the bill, the community weighs its pros and cons. Local newspapers are filled with letters to the editor, indicating the community’s serious engagement in the discussion.
The proposal is supported by community organizations such as Sensible CNMI — which helped Igisomar in drafting the bill — as well the U.S. advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project.
Gerry Hemley, a representative from Sensible CNMI, said lifting the prohibition on marijuana use would create a new industry that would pump additional money into the Commonwealth’s coffers aside from its medical benefits. “It would allow us to tax the commodity that can also be regulated and monitored through a system that will be in place,” Hemley said at a recent public hearing conducted by the committee. “[Legalizing marijuana] would also benefit the CNMI economically through taxes that would come from it. Doing this will do many things—economically, medically, and socially. It covers a lot, thus creating a new industry.”
Those in the medical field who support medical marijuana said it would offer a relief to patients suffering from chronic pain and experience seizures.
Dr. John Doyle, an internal medicine physician at the Commonwealth Health Center, said medical marijuana gives CNMI patients a cheaper alternative to pharmaceutically-grade medicines such as dronabinol that cost hundreds of dollars compared to a medicinal plant that can be grown locally. “We have dronabinol, a pharmaceutically grade medicine that is pure [tetrahydrocannabinol] or the extract from the plant. That medicine is available for us and is no different in form and function from the actual marijuana plant,” said Doyle, who also owns a private clinic. “But unless you have $3,000 a month to pay, you can take the medicine.”
Doyle cited statistics which show that states where medical marijuana has been legalized use has seen a 30 percent across the board drop in opioid deaths and meth users also dropped from 20 to 25 percent.
Karen O’Keefe, MPP State Policies director, said prohibition of marijuana use “hasn’t stopped adults or the youth from assessing cannabis.”
Seven years ago medical marijuana was legal in only 17 states and the District of Columbia; recreational marijuana was legal in zero states and zero Districts of Columbia. Today, medical marijuana programs are on the books in 29 states, and the nine best states allow for some degree of recreational use. Canada recently became the second nation, next to Uruguay, to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Guam became the first U.S. territory to legalize medical marijuana, following a vote in 2014. The medical marijuana program, however, has been stalled by problems with rules and regulations and the lack of a testing lab.
While the movement to legalize marijuana is gaining momentum, CNMI Gov. Ralph DLG Torres has raised some concerns. He wants to know if there’s any link between marijuana use and crime. “How many crimes were [committed] or [has it] increased? We should look at other states that have this in the last 10 years against one year,” the governor said. “What are the crimes that have been committed in the first year? Is there any correlation between the crime committed and the passage of marijuana legalization? If there is, can we detect those [crimes related to] marijuana use?”
If marijuana were to be legalized, the CNMI State Board of Education wants to implement its own drug-free policy for the Public School System. Board members want to keep all public schools drug-free and their employees — especially those holding safety-sensitive positions — banned from using marijuana. The board wants to have the authority to fire employees found using marijuana use, especially bus drivers and teachers as they need to be sober when driving the students and teaching in the classrooms.
The proposal also raises questions on its impact on the criminal justice system. Marijuana is listed among the restricted substances under the DUI infraction. Penalties or fines collected from DUI arrests raise government revenue.
Both sides have been heard by the justice and governmental operations committee. Now, it is up to the legislature to take the next step and decide the direction of the bill.