Bahamas Government Unveils Proposal To Legalize Marijuana For Medical, Religious And Scientific Use

Top officials in the Bahamas have announced a legislative package that would legalize marijuana for medical, religious and research purposes. Personal possession of small amounts of cannabis would also be decriminalized, and past convictions for simple possession would be expunged.

Together, the suite of bills would establish a local framework for marijuana production and, according to the government, “ensure a well-regulated, safe and controlled cannabis industry.”

Attorney General Ryan Pinder and Health and Wellness Minister Michael Darville announced the proposed reforms during the Office of the Prime Minister’s weekly press briefing on Thursday.

Pinder said he’d like to have the bills in Parliament by October.

“The goal would be to debate them by the end of this calendar year, because there is a lot of work that has to go into setting up the authority,” he said. “There is training, certifications, the digital platform for tracing and prescriptions and all of that has to be done before the licenses are issued.”

If passed, doctors in the Bahamas would be able to recommend cannabis for specific conditions, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.

“There are many Bahamians, some who suffer from debilitating illness such as end-stage cancers and various forms of depression that are not responsive to clinical therapy and post-traumatic stress,” said Darville.

The changes would also permit the religious use of cannabis by Rastafarians, who would need to obtain special licenses.

While the policy reforms would not legalize cannabis broadly, possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana would be decriminalized, subject to a $250 fine in lieu of a criminal record. Past convictions for simple possession would also be expunged.

The central piece of legislation is the Cannabis Bill of 2023. Other bills in the package deal with regulations, changes to dangerous drugs and health professions laws, pharmacy changes and more.

Licensees in the regulated cannabis industry would need to be Bahamian and at least 21 years old. Ownership groups would also need to include a certain percentage of Bahamians, based on license type. Cultivators, for example, would need to be 100 percent Bahamian-owned. Testing, manufacturing and research licenses would need 30 percent Bahamian ownership.

“We have a number of licenses that will be in place and opportunities for Bahamians to participate, and we look forward to their participation,” Pinder said. “We do believe this is going to have a positive economic impact.”

The system would be overseen by a new government Cannabis Authority, which would consist of nine members representing “a faith-based organization, civil society, and one person each from the fields of banking, law, agriculture, scientific research, pharmacy, and medicine.”

A government website about the proposals says the “comprehensive framework is not arbitrary; it’s rooted in research and the findings of the Caribbean Community Secretariat’s 2018 report on cannabis.” Additionally, it says, the bills’ authors also studied cannabis regulation in Jamaica, Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Canada. “This ensures that our legislation is in line with international best practices and tailored to our unique cultural and legal context.”

In 2018, the heads of 19 Caribbean nations, including Bahamas, Barbados, Haiti, Jamaica and others, agreed to “review marijuana’s current status with a view to reclassification,” citing “human and religious rights” issues stemming from criminalization as well as “the economic benefits to be derived” from a regulated industry.

Pinder said at Thursday’s press conference that the country’s Ministry of Agriculture is also working to allow cannabis cultivation on a parcel of land it oversees.

“They set aside 25 acres in Nassau in the new agribusiness park that will be accessible for micro-cultivation,” he said. “Needless to say, on the family islands, there is much more opportunity for agricultural land, especially on Andros and Eleuthera.”

Officials said an important next step in the process is public consultation “aimed at including a wide array of experts and and citizens from various sectors.” Some closed-door consulting sessions began earlier this week, Pinder said, but open public meetings are forthcoming.

Commenters can also provide feedback online, the government said, either by email or online.

A U.S. State Department report in May examined the relationship between nations’ marijuana laws and how they either respect or infringe on religious freedoms. During 2022, the report identified increased tolerance in some countries for religious groups such as Rastafarians, who use cannabis ceremonially, with spiritual leaders saying that they’ve been encouraged by reform efforts to legalize or decriminalize marijuana.

In certain nations, for example Saint Lucia, religious organizations said that the government had actively engaged them on cannabis issues. And while certain groups in other countries continue to fight for ending prohibition—a policy that they say infringes on their religious rights—the trend in 2022 was more positive than past years for those who consume marijuana as part of the spiritual tradition.

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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