Medical marijuana referendum clears Senate

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ST. THOMAS - The 30th Legislature passed a number of bills at Monday's session, including a measure to ask voters how they feel about legalizing medical marijuana in the territory.

The measure, if signed by Gov. John deJongh Jr., will place a non-binding referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The ballot question would be: "Should the Legislature consider legislation that allows for the licensing and regulation of medicinal marijuana patients, care-givers, cultivators and distribution centers?"

Voters would be able to check "yes" or "no" to answer the question.

Two years ago, in the 29th Legislature, Sen. Terrance Nelson put forth two measures for ballot referendums on marijuana. One was to ask voters whether they would support legalizing medical marijuana, and the other was to ask voters whether they would support legalizing the production of hemp.

The hemp legislation passed and made it onto the ballot in November 2012, and 60 percent of those who voted on the referendum voted "yes" to consider legalization of industrial hemp.

The legislation for the medicinal marijuana referendum did not pass out of the Senate, and the question was not on the ballot.

In the new bill, which Nelson also put forth, the whereas clauses note that 21 states already permit the medicinal use and cultivation of marijuana under certain circumstances and 12 more states have pending legislation to legalize medical marijuana.

Senators who supported the measure made it clear that what they are supporting is putting the question to the people, not that they themselves would necessarily be in favor of legalizing medical marijuana.

At Monday's session, there was a heated discussion about whether the referendum would be binding.

It will not be binding, it is simply an opinion poll to give senators a feel for the public support or opposition to the idea, Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone said.

"I'm not asking you today to vote to legalize medicinal marijuana," Nelson said. "I'm asking you to let this go before the people."

Several senators mentioned people they know who are sick or in a lot of pain with multiple sclerosis or similar diseases, for whom marijuana helps.

Sen. Sammuel Sanes said if his daughter developed a disease and marijuana was the only thing that provided some relief, he would "not be man enough" to say no and watch her suffer.

Some senators were against the measure because of their strong convictions that making marijuana legal will harm the territory's residents, particularly the children. Several senators mentioned that studies have shown marijuana damages the developing brains of young people.

Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly said the bill and the idea of medical marijuana is not about sick people, it is about adults who want to use the drug for recreational purposes. She also noted that the people who will get rich off legalization of medical marijuana will not be Virgin Islanders, but a few already wealthy businessmen.

"It's not about healing anyone, and it's not about growth. It's about opening a door for the vertical integration for full legalization of recreational marijuana," Rivera-O'Reilly said.

The measure passed with 12 senators voting in favor and two senators voting against.

Senators voting for the bill were Craig Barshinger, Diane Capehart, Donald Cole, Kenneth Gittens, Clifford Graham, Alicia Hansen, Myron Jackson, Malone, Nelson, Clarence Payne III, Tregenza Roach and Sanes.

Sen. Janette Millin Young and Rivera-O'Reilly voted against the measure.

Sen. Judi Buckley was absent from Monday's session.

Other legislation passed Monday included:

- A bill amending the Hotel Development Act to allow hotel developments on Water Island and outlying cays to participate in the benefit program. The bill was amended to increase the amount the hotels participating in the program would have to earmark for scholarships from $20,000 to $100,000.

- A bill to abolish the Casino Control Commission Fund under the V.I. Finance Department and replace it with a checking account within the commission. The measure also requires an audit of the account that is reported annually to the Legislature.

- A bill to provide a clearer definition for the crime of interfering with an officer discharging his duty.

- A bill amending the criminal code to remove "intimidate" to avoid any gray area for a judge's discretion in sentencing leaving the Virgin Islands Hate-Motivates Crimes Act as the sole statute under which hate crimes will be prosecuted.

- A bill abolishing pension payments to spouses of deceased governors and lieutenant governors.

- A resolution honoring Elizabeth Lynch for her service and culinary contributions to the Virgin Islands.

- A resolution to name the sports complex to be built on St. Croix after Horace Clark.

- A bill to appropriate $100,000 from the General Fund to the University of the Virgin Islands to create a distinguished professorship in international relations and diplomacy in honor of Ambassador Terence Todman and name the airport access road, Route 302, on St. Thomas after him.

- A bill to honor former Sen. John Bell and name the Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility after him.

- A bill to authorize the sale of parcel No. 40 CB Estate Taarenberg, St. Thomas.

- A bill to name the northwest end of Veterans Drive the William Henry Hastie Park, in honor of the territory's only black appointed governor.

- A bill amending the V.I. Code as it relates to the practice of dentistry in the territory.

- A bill to give government retirees the option of receiving either a paper check stub for their annuity payment or a digital pay stub. A handful of unrelated amendments were attached to the bill.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email

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