Senator wants to hear from V.I. on marijuana proposals


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ST. THOMAS - Should the territory consider legislation to legalize medical marijuana and industrial hemp?

That is the question Sen. Terrence Nelson hopes will be put to voters on Election Day.

Senators will consider two bills in Committee of the Whole - today on St. Thomas and Tuesday on St. Croix - to place two referendum questions on the General Election ballot.

The bills will be heard in Committee of the Whole this week and will likely go straight to the Senate floor for consideration at the next full session, scheduled for Aug. 21.

If the bills pass the Legislature, they would go to Gov. John deJongh Jr. for action. If he signs the bills by Sept. 10, the two questions will be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The ballot questions would be:

- Are you in favor of the Legislature enacting legislation that allows for the licensing and regulation of medicinal marijuana patients, care-givers, cultivators and distribution centers?

- Are you in favor of promoting the production, processing, manufacture and distribution of industrial hemp in the Virgin Islands?

"Both bills are really just asking if the people are interested," Nelson said.

The ballot initiatives are not binding, they are just a way to poll the community and gauge support, he said.

"I want the people to say yes first," Nelson said.

With the economy in shambles, and the loss of HOVENSA on St. Croix, the community needs to consider other options to generate revenues, Nelson said.

"The time has come to have intelligent, open-minded discussion about this," he said.

He said 19 states already have medical marijuana laws in place, and 17 states have legislation pending.

"It's not a new trend," he said.

Nelson already is getting support from a wide range of people, he said.

St. Croix resident EllaJean Forbes is one of them.

Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years ago, she said she deals with chronic pain. She has lower extremity weakness, numbness in her left side and problems with her vision.

For now, her condition is stable, and she is taking medication to manage her symptoms.

But she wants options if her illness progresses, and she wants a viable solution for others with multiple sclerosis and other diseases.

"I like to think of myself as a proactive person. If I don't need it today, that doesn't mean that tomorrow I won't need it," she said. "And I don't want to try to fight for it when I do need it."

She said she does not smoke marijuana, but she has heard about the medical benefits it can bring to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and people with chronic pain disorders.

"I don't want to sit on my porch and smoke a joint," she said. "I would never do that. My husband is a law enforcement officer. But if there is something that could be given to those of us who suffer from chronic pain, then there should be something done to help us."

Nkosi James, also a resident of St. Croix, said he supports Nelson's initiatives as well.

"I'm in favor of industrial hemp," he said. "My whole thing is to try to empower the community economically."

He said bringing the industrial hemp industry to the territory would mitigate the loss of HOVENSA and make agriculture a thriving industry.

"We have the best environment to grow this product," he said.

Linda Adler, president of the V.I. National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said she strongly supports the bills to place the questions on the ballot.

In 2009, the group worked on a citizen's initiative to legalize marijuana by circulating a petition. Adler said while many people said they supported the move, they were afraid to sign their names to a petition where others in the community would see it.

"I fully support both of these being put in as referendums," she said. "Those people that wouldn't come out before and sign the petition, now they have the opportunity to do it in privacy."

Adler said she is an epileptic, and neurologists have told her that medical marijuana would help her seizures. When she lived in Washington state, where medical marijuana is legal, she was prescribed marijuana for her condition and found it helped her immensely.

"I only take it for my medical purposes," she said.

Adler also supports the many uses of industrial hemp, which can be used for biofuel, fiber, and an alternative to concrete. Hemp seeds can be used to make oil and can be used in food, she said.

Nelson said he has been accused of introducing the legislation for his own benefit, so he can smoke marijuana.

"For those who think that I'm doing this for my personal reasons, that's foolishness," he said. "I would not have to go through all of this just to have a toke."

He said it is wrong to assume that someone is a user just because they support the issue.

"I know this is not an easy conversation to have, I know that this is not an easy measure to push," Nelson said.

If the referendums show that the public does support the move to legalize medical marijuana and industrial hemp, Nelson will draft legislation to do so. The legislation would allow for the growth, sale and use of medical marijuana and industrial hemp through permits. The industries would be regulated by the government and monitored.

And recreational use and sale of marijuana still would be illegal, Nelson said.

"It appears that this is something the people want, but the only way to be certain is to put it to a referendum," Nelson said.

The two Committee of the Whole hearings will start at 6 p.m. Today's hearing will be in Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas. Tuesday's hearing will be on St. Croix.

Anyone interested in testifying on the bills can call Nelson's office at 712-2210.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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