UK blocks Bermuda from legalising cannabis, threatening constitutional crisis during Liz Truss’s first week.
Bermudian officials slammed the ‘confines of our constitutional relationship with the UK government’ after the intervention.
The UK Government has intervened to block the legalisation of cannabis in Bermuda, which threatens a constitutional crisis that could “destroy” relations with a British Overseas Territory during Liz Truss’s first week in office.
On Tuesday, as Ms Truss vowed from the steps of Downing Street to “stand up for freedom and democracy around the world”, officials in the self-governing British territory were informed that a Cannabis Licensing Bill that would legalise the use and sale of cannabis will not be permitted to become law.
Bermuda’s UK-appointed Governor, civil servant Rena Lalgie, typically gives assent to laws on behalf of the Queen, usually serving as little more than a rubber-stamp for legislation.
But in a statement on Tuesday, she said: “I have now received an instruction, issued to me on Her Majesty’s behalf, not to Assent to the Bill as drafted.”
The statement added that “the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs concluded that the Bill, as currently drafted, is not consistent with obligations held by the UK and Bermuda” under international anti-drugs conventions dating back to 1961.
It is thought the decision was down to Ms Truss herself, who remained Foreign Secretary until she took office as Prime Minister on Tuesday, rather than the newly-appointed Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.
The move has sparked anger in Bermuda, where calls for independence from Britain have been steadily picking up steam.
Responding on behalf of the Bermudian government, attorney general Kathy Lynn Simmons said the move was “disappointing, but not surprising, given the confines of our constitutional relationship with the UK government and their archaic interpretation of the narcotic conventions”.
The politician vowed to continue with the measure, putting the country on a collision course with the UK, adding: “The people of Bermuda have democratically expressed their desire for a regulated cannabis licensing regime, following the strong endorsement at the ballot box and an extensive public consultation process.
“The Government of Bermuda intends to continue to advance this initiative, within the full scope of its constitutional powers, in keeping with our 2020 general election platform commitment.”
Bermudian premier David Burt is yet to respond to the move, but previously warned: “If Her Majesty’s representative in Bermuda does not give assent to something that has been passed lawfully and legally under this local government, this will destroy the relationship we had with the United Kingdom.”
Bermuda’s opposition party have previously accused the governing Progressive Labour Party of using the issue as a “smokescreen” to push for independence.
The remote territory in the North Atlantic has a population of about 60,000, but is known for its status as a tax haven for corporations and the mega-wealthy.
It is exceptionally rare for the UK to exercise royal powers to block legislation in its 14 overseas territories.
Professor Peter Clegg, an expert on the British Overseas Territories at the University of the West of England, told i that it was the first time in recent memory that the UK had intervened to block a law in such a way.
He said: “Normally, it’s almost an automatic process. There is an understanding that each territory has its own democratically elected government, and there’s a high degree of autonomy and self-government.
“(Intervention) is very, very unusual, because there’s a recognition of the likely controversy it would cause, by having power coming from the Crown used to stop the local parliament from passing a piece of legislation.”
Professor Clegg said there would likely be a “heated” response from local leaders, adding: “They’re testing the conventions and the constitutional practice, which links the UK to Bermuda in this case.”
Despite fears of renewed calls for independence, he added: “I don’t think there would be enough of an appetite within Bermuda at the moment if a vote were held.
“There might be a court case, but that will take some time. So there are no easy avenues for the Bermuda government to get around the UK decision.”
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson refused to intervene in 2018 to block a Bermudian law that banned recognition of same-sex marriage, despite pleas from LGBT+ campaigners to do so.
At the time, the Foreign Office had said that “the UK regrets that Bermuda has chosen this course, but we also respect and believe in their right to self-government.”
British Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Overseas Territories, was among those to accuse the Foreign Office of hypocrisy.
He told i: “One of the last acts of Liz Truss at the Foreign Office has been to politicise the Queen by forcing the Governor of Bermuda to not give assent to a bill that would have legalised recreational cannabis.
“This was a perfectly legitimate law, which had public support and should not have been struck down in this way.
“In 2018, this same government refused to intervene when Bermuda overturn same-sex marriage on the grounds that they had a right to self-government, so this latest decision is hypocritical at best and despotic at worst.”
The precedent cited for intervention on Tuesday dates back to a 1961 United Nations drugs convention that the UK is a signatory to – though several other signatory nations and a number of US states have since decriminalised cannabis without consequence.
The UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs voted in 2020 to delete cannabis from a list of prohibited substances for medicinal purposes, though it is still technically restricted for recreational use under the treaty.
A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson said: “Bermuda’s proposed cannabis licensing bill is not consistent with the UK or the territory’s international obligations.”