50 States

50 States: The Virgin Islands Legalize Medical Cannabis

By Jon Young

50 States: The Virgin Islands Legalize Medical Cannabis

Medical: Yes
Recreational: No
Decriminalized: Yes

January 18, 2019: 

Governor Albert Bryan Jt. signed the Virgin Islands Medical Cannabis Patient Care Act into law this week, making medical cannabis legal in another U.S. territory. Following a 2014 ballot referendum in which 57 percent of the voters supported legal medical use, seven-term Senator Positive T.A. Nelson repeatedly introduced legislation to legalize medical cannabis, and the legislature finally passed it in December. The U.S. Virgin Islands are now the fourth territory to legalize medical use, following Guam (2014), Puerto Rico (2015) and the Northern Mariana Islands (2018). 

What's Past Is Prologue

The U.S. Virgin Islands are poised to become a haven for those seeking cannabis in the Caribbean, at least according to Senator Terrence “Positive” Nelson. In 2014, voters passed a non-binding referendum to legalize medical marijuana (MMJ) with 57-percent voter approval, though the vote effectively served as an opinion poll, and MMJ is still not legal in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  

“Cannabis medicine is a new revolution in healthcare,” Sen. Nelson said in a radio interview. “And if we poise ourselves as such in the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean, we can help to provide the education necessary and the health care services necessary in this new medicine availability and provide the training necessary so that the other caribbean islands can follow suit.”

Sen. Nelson, who believes in all things positive, is the first Rastafarian (and fifth-degree Taekwondo black belt) to be elected to legislature in the United States, and he is a major advocate for the legalization of cannabis in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Though the passage of a bill legalizing MMJ failed to progress past a referendum, the Senate body in the U.S. Virgin Islands voted unanimously in 2014 to overturn Governor John De Jongh’s veto of a decriminalization bill, making possession of less than an ounce of cannabis a civil fine with a maximum fine of $200. Those who are underage and caught in possession will also have to complete a drug awareness program. Under the previous law, those caught in possession of any amount could face up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Gov. De Jongh line-item vetoed the bill arguing the bill represented an “inconsistent application of the law as it pertains to private employees versus government employees,” and the legislation curtails the government’s ability to “enforce and regulate workplace rules and codes of conduct, particularly in those areas involving hazardous jobs, public safety and the operation of heavy equipment,” while compromising the ability of the “judiciary to effectively enforce its orders pertaining to pre-trial release and bail,” according to the VI Consortium.

Sen. Nelson, the bill’s author, stated the move for decriminalization has been adopted by most Attorney Generals in the United states, adding, “It will go a long way in easing cost on the judicial system and judicial process.”

The U.S. Virgin Islands latest Governor, Kenneth Mapp, is hesitant in pushing forward any meaningful cannabis laws in the Virgin Islands.

“I do not believe the Virgin Islands is ready to go to wholesale legalization of marijuana,” Mapp said. “I agreed and have no issue with regard to the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana. I hear the conversation and the discussion and the debate about medicinal use of marijuana, but I’m not quite sure what we call medicinal use. If I say that I’m anxious and nervous if I don’t have marijuana does the doctor give me a prescription because it calms my nerves and I can focus more? So I don’t know those issues to that extent.”

While Sen. Nelson continues to spearhead cannabis legalization bills, he hopes to promote the U.S. Virgin Islands similarly to states that have legalized recreational cannabis, like Colorado and Washington State.

At last year’s “State of the Industry” conference, Sen. Nelson said the Caribbean Tourism Organization “should adopt and adapt cannabis as a Caribbean commodity because it is true most people come to the Caribbean, and they anticipate smoking weed. I’m talking about working professionals, not juvenile delinquents. I’m talking about hard-working surgeons, lawyers and even politicians. We have something going on, and we need to capture it.”

Mapp, while not actively opposed to legalization, probably won’t agree to the legalization of recreational, or for that matter, medical cannabis, anytime soon.

“I have no real strong feelings on it one way or the other,” he said. “I’ve seen it from the perspective of a police officer, and I’ve seen it in the context of being on the public stage as an administrator. And as I said, the decriminalization I think was on point and needed to happen. But I’m not quite sure how fast and how far we travel towards the ebb of legalization.”

Photo credit: Unsplash.


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