CNMI braces for a new industry
Debate continues despite the enactment of law legalizing marijuana
CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres is joined by proponents of marijuana legalization during the signing of the Taulamwaar Sensible CNMI Cannabis Act of 2018 on Sept. 21. Photo by Jonathan Perez
Saipan — Sept. 21 became a historic day for the Northern Marianas when Gov. Ralph DLG Torres signed House Bill 20-178, now known as Public Law 20-66 or the Taulamwaar Sensible CNMI Cannabis Act of 2018, that would allow the CNMI to slowly transition to legalization of marijuana.
Immediately, the social media went abuzz. The wisecrackers joked that it’s high time the Mariana Islands is renamed Marijuana Islands. The CNMI is the second U.S. territory to legalize marijuana, following Guam. But the CNMI has upstaged its sister-island by earning the distinction of being the first territory to legalize weed for purposes other than medicinal. And while Guam voters ratified medical cannabis in 2014, local patients still don’t have access to related products because adoption of regulations remains in limbo.
“Today, our people made history. We took a stand to legalize marijuana in the CNMI for recreational, medical, and commercial use,” Torres said. “From the hard work of our legislature going out and conducting numerous public hearings on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota to the overwhelming support from members of our community, it is only fitting that I sign this bill into law in the best interest of our people, especially those suffering from debilitating illnesses and for our island economy.”
While advocates of pot legalization rejoice, the enactment of the Taulamwaar Sensible CNMI Cannabis Act of 2018 has not abated the familiar debate. Some have expressed concerns about the impact of the newly created cannabis industry on this tightly-knit community. Pro-cannabis advocates, especially those who endorse it for medical use, welcomed Torres’ decision as it will open the door for easy access to marijuana and other products sourced from the cannabis plant.
Slow down. It is not legal yet until the regulations are put in place. “We have 30 days to set up our Cannabis Commission by appointing members from Saipan, Tinian, Rota, and the Northern Islands, and our local legislative delegations would need to confirm them within 30 days,” said Torres, who is seeking reelection this year.
The commission will have 180 days to draft and promulgate the regulations. The regulations take into effect 10 days after adoption and publication in Commonwealth Register.
PL 20-66 would allow adults over 21 to legally possess small amounts of marijuana (1 ounce), marijuana-infused products (16 ounces in solid form and 72 ounces in liquid form), and marijuana extracts (5 grams).
“We will ensure that this industry will be properly regulated and enforced,” the Republican governor said. “We want to do this the right way and I also expect the legislature to send me a companion bill that outlines my recommendations to strengthen this bill for our community’s public safety and public health.
But clearly, the ruling party is split on the issue. Three Republican lawmakers and members of the CNMI State of Board of Education are not exactly thrilled. Education board members are concerned about a possibility of cannabis products finding their way to schools, noting that the language in the law —which partly reads “valid recommendation for marijuana issued by a physician in the Commonwealth to engage in the use of marijuana”— may give anyone carte blanche.
“This is unacceptable. Allowing marijuana on campus would put our federal grants in jeopardy,” BOE chair MaryLou S. Ada said, citing the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, which mandates that the Public School System must remain drug-free as a condition for receiving federal grants. “If marijuana is allowed on campus, with or without a prescription, we will be in violation of our grants.”
Rota Sen. Teresita A. Santos twice abstained on two separate bills related to cannabis legalization in the CNMI saying she only supports the medicinal use of cannabis. She is concerned that PL 20-66 would make it easier for minors to access marijuana and its byproducts. “When [it] gets into the hands of our teenagers, marijuana could alter their senses, [induce] mood changes, impair body movements, [result in] difficulty with thinking and problem solving, impaired memory, and even hallucinations,” she said, adding that parents from Rota signed a petition opposing the bill for recreational purposes. “If it [was] for medicinal purposes, I would have voted in the affirmative.”
House Vice Speaker Janet U. Maratita also abstained from voting on the bill for the same reason. “What good will it do to our community to have all this [money] and yet our social welfare remains to be impacted?” she said. “We might be losing federal grants that is available to our [PSS], our healthcare, our law enforcement, and many other agencies that are receiving funding from the federal [government]. Let’s finish the casino industry before we go to another industry. Let’s do things one at a time.”
While proponents of legalized marijuana preach about its economic gains, Republican Rep. Donald Barcinas warned about its subsequent cost to the government. “The general fund would be tapped to finance the cannabis industry, as well as to implement regulations, equipment procurement and whatnot,” he said. “We are not ready. We do not have the enforcement capability. We keep creating bills and measures that are going to make revenue but how much revenue is going to come in from this bill?”
In summary, the law:
allows adults 21 and older and patients with certain medical conditions to possess limited amounts of marijuana (one ounce), marijuana-infused products (16 ounces in solid form, 72 ounces in liquid form), and marijuana extracts (five grams);
creates a Homegrown Marijuana Registry, through which adults and patients can register to grow a limited number of marijuana plants (six mature and 12 immature or up to twice that amount in the case of medical need) for personal use;
directs the legislature to enact taxes and fees on all marijuana sold by a producer, as well as an excise tax on retail sales of marijuana for adult use (medical marijuana is exempt);
provides for six types of regulated marijuana businesses: producers, testing facilities, processors, retailers, wholesalers, and lounges; and
establishes a five-member appointed CNMI Cannabis Commission, which will serve as the regulatory agency overseeing commercial marijuana and hemp.
Sensible CNMI, a community group that supports decriminalization of marijuana, welcomed the signing of the
progressive piece of legislation. “Together, we are telling the world, that we do not feel that our citizens should be stigmatized and criminalized for the responsible adult use of cannabis and that they should no longer be denied access to this life-saving medicine,” said Laurence Duponcheel, cofounder of Sensible CNMI.
“The journey begins with the governor setting up the commission and we’re going to see from there how we would benefit from this,” said Geri Hemley, cofounder of Sensible CNMI.
Commonwealth Healthcare Center medical director Dr. John Doyle said allowing recreational use would grant easy access to medical patients. “This is the reason why I was fighting for recreational use as opposed to medical. For instance, the new drug that’s derived from cannabis has been patented and approved by the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration],” Doyle said. “It is the same drug that they’ve been giving the kids with seizures. The pharmaceutical companies put a price tag on it of $37,000 a year. Basically, those who need it medically will be able to grow it on their own backyard.”
PL 20-66 was named after the late David ‘Taulamwaar’ Peter, a Vietnam War veteran and a cultural icon, who died almost three years ago.
His widow, Malua Peter was emotional when she thanked Torres for signing the bill into law as this would give cancer patients and others who are in need of medical marijuana. She said her husband suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after coming back from the Vietnam War and marijuana kept him calm.
She added that they had to move to Washington State when her husband was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer to avail of the hemp oil. “He took hemp oil and his cancer cells were diminishing. Then he decided to come back to Saipan to be with the rest of his family. His condition worsened.”
She said that those who are opposed should give the new law a chance.