CNMI Legalizes Recreational Marijuana, As Guam’s Medical Cannabis Still Not A Reality 4 Years Later

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Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Gov. Ralph DLG Torres on Friday signed a law legalizing and regulating marijuana use in the CNMI.

Guam still is trying to get its medical marijuana program implemented four years after voters approved it. Lawmakers during the next legislative session are scheduled to take up several bills intended to jump-start the program or allow patients to grow their own cannabis.

The CNMI is the first U.S. jurisdiction to directly adopt the recreational use of marijuana instead of starting with a medical marijuana program. Unlike states where marijuana commerce was legalized by voters, the CNMI legalized it through an act by lawmakers.

“Today, our people made history. We took a stand to legalize marijuana in the CNMI for recreational, medical and commercial use,” the CNMI governor said in a statement.

Torres said, however, that it’s not legal to use marijuana yet because members of a Cannabis Commission still have to be appointed. The commission will have 180 days to create the regulations and promulgate them.

“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,” Torres said.

Advocates hailed the signing of the Taulamwaar Sensible CNMI Cannabis Act of 2018, which would make it legal for adults 21 years of age and older to possess limited amounts of marijuana, (one ounce), marijuana-infused products, (16 ounces in solid form, 72 ounces in liquid form), and marijuana extracts, (five grams).

“We are proud of our governor and the legislature for ending the failed policy of marijuana prohibition in the Northern Marianas and adopting a more sensible system of regulation. We look forward to working with lawmakers, the Cannabis Commission and other stakeholders to implement this legislation swiftly and responsibly,” said Lawrence Duponcheel, who co-founded Sensible CNMI along with Gerry Hemley.

Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, the nation’s largest marijuana policy organization, applauded the CNMI and its leaders.

“The work is not done yet, and we hope officials will continue to take a thoughtful and evidence-based approach to implementing this new regulatory system. Hopefully lawmakers throughout the U.S. will take notice and look to CNMI as an example for how to end prohibition and establish an effective marijuana regulatory system,” O’Keefe said.

Kevin Bautista, Torres’ press secretary, said there’s a line-item veto since the governor has some concerns about the bill. The governor expects a separate bill to would address public health and public safety concerns.

Once the CNMI marijuana industry is established, residents of Guam and other jurisdictions can purchase cannabis in the CNMI for medical or other purposes, but won’t be legally allowed to take them outside the CNMI, according to Bautista.

CNMI Sen. Sixto Igisomar, the original author of the CNMI cannabis legislation, on Friday said it was the 2014 testimony of Guam residents who wanted medical marijuana legalization to help their families with medical condition that inspired him to introduce medicinal marijuana legislation.

Igisomar’s medicinal marijuana bill failed to pass the CNMI Senate but in 2017, he introduced a broader version of the medicinal marijuana bill to legalize cannabis for “personal, commercial and hemp industry.”

He said he needed to expand the bill when it became apparent to him that it’s the only way to help patients. His bill passed the Senate but because revenue-generating bills have to originate from the House of Representatives, the House filed its version of the bill, which passed both houses and was sent to the governor in August.

Igisomar hopes patients on Guam will get the help they need once the CNMI’s program is up and running.

Guam’s next legislative session is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 1, and senators have placed three bills on the agenda related to marijuana.

Sen. Louise Muña, who is seeking re-election, worked on a home cultivation bill when it became apparent that Guam has made little progress in getting the medical marijuana program off the ground because of a lack of public interest in setting up a required independent testing laboratory.

Muña’s Bill 302 would allow patients to grow at home as many as three flowering mature cannabis plants and six juvenile plants at any given time.

Sen. Dennis Rodriguez Jr.’s Bill 326 would allow the governor to issue an executive order, waiving the required independent testing laboratory, with legislative consent.

The senator’s Bill 327 seeks to remove the law’s requirement that a testing laboratory be at least 51 percent locally owned.

A law implementing rules for the medical marijuana program was signed earlier this year, but no one has applied for a license to set up an independent testing laboratory. The Department of Public Health and Social Services said it could cost at least $1 million.