50 States

50 States: Northern Mariana Islands

By Jon Young

50 States: Northern Mariana Islands

Medical: Yes (2019)
Recreational: Yes (2019)
Decriminalized: Yes (2019)

September 21, 2018: Earlier today, Northern Mariana Islands became the first U.S. territory to legalize recreational cannabis through the legislature. The law, which will not take effect until next year when regulations are put in place, is particularly historic for being the first legislature-passed law in the U.S. that includes a regulated cannabis marketplace. Vermont, the only other state/territory to legalize cannabis through the legislators, made it legal to possess but not sell cannabis. 

"Today, our people made history," said Governor Ralph Torres in a statement. "We took a stand to legalize marijuana in the [territory] for recreational, medical, and commercial use. 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."

What's Past Is Prologue

Yet again, legislation to legalize cannabis has been stalled in the small Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) after another attempt to get a legalization bill before voters failed last week.

The Commonwealth Marijuana Regulation Act of 2016, sponsored by Sen. Sixto K. Igisomar, was a last-minute effort by the senator to put a referendum before voters on the small chain of 15 islands in the Northwestern Pacific Ocean just north of Guam. Sen. Igisomar’s initial draft was intended to address patients’ need for medical marijuana (MMJ) on the island, but was amended to include recreational use and decriminalization to better ensure access for those who need MMJ for treatment of a variety of ailments. The bill would have legalized, regulated and taxed recreational cannabis for those 21 and older, as well as allowing medical access for those who get recommendations from their doctors.

“The final version from our end is a bill for an act, and for the bill to ratify to have the people vote on the question on the Commonwealth Marijuana Regulation Act of 2016,” Sen. Igisomar said, according to the Saipan Tribune. “Access for medicinal use, personal use and commercial use to provide revenue opportunity to our CNMI to support the general fund, for enforcement among others, and funding source to support our hospital, public schools and retirees.”

Sen. Igisomar based his bill on Oregon’s Measure 91, which legalized recreational use and created a regulated and taxed market within the state in 2014.

“Both the successes and failures of these programs has been observed, analyzed, and considered by those who have been enlisted to develop modern day marijuana legislation that can also be done in other places,” Sen. Igisomar said. “[CMRA] is furthermore informed by eight federal guidelines concerning marijuana enforcement developed by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2014.”

However, the bill failed to pass all the necessary hurdles in time to get on November’s ballot.

“The bill will not make it to the ballot this November,” Sen. Igisomar told Marijuana.com. “[But] we will push it through and make it ready for 2018 or for any special election that may rise before then.”

The CNMI is currently the second biggest consumer of cannabis per capita in the world, at 22.2 percent, according to Business Insider. In 2000, law enforcement eradication efforts led to a decrease in local cannabis cultivation, making room for criminal groups from the Philippines and the neighboring Republic of Palau (number one in cannabis consumption per capita) to smuggle cannabis into the commonwealth via container shipments and personal couriers, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center’s 2003 report.

Now, prices for tourists have jumped from $2.50 per joint to $20 to $50, and usage rates continue to remain at high levels.

“While I continue to support the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes, I think that the temperament across the country is that full legalization is working in the states that have legalized it. The public through our public hearings have expressed their desire for full legalization. I think it would be wise to bring this question to the people to vote on this initiative,” Igisomar said, per the Marianas Variety. “While medicinal marijuana measures have passed in virtually every state as well as in the U.S. Territory of Guam, I believe that the critical mass is not present in the CNMI to the extent where medicinal marijuana legislation could be economical to enforce yet affordable to patients.”

In the meantime, those who need MMJ and want to see the end of prohibition will have to wait until 2018 to see if legislation can pass the historically reticent CNMI senate and leave the matter for the voter to decide. 

Photo credit: Unsplash.

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