‘Cannabis amendment should’ve gone to conference’

The four House of Representative members that opposed a recently passed legislation that amended the cannabis bill believe that the bill should have been taken up in a conference committee.

The conference committee, which is expressly formed by the Legislature to settle differences between the House and Senate on a specific bill, should have been the route taken on House Bill 21-13, according to three members of the minority bloc who voted against the Senate version of Rep. John Paul Sablan’s (R-Saipan) H.B. 21-13.

Rep. Sheila Babauta (Ind-Saipan), who voted against the Senate amendment to the bill, explained that she “was not comfortable with the requirement of a Homegrown Marijuana Registry ID card for responsible users.”

That’s because the list of names may be accessible to the public and may have “detrimental effects” on certain occupations since cannabis is still registered as a federally controlled substance.

“This only opens the door to discrimination. It is not practiced in states that have legalized cannabis and I just don’t believe a list is necessary,” she added.

Rep. Tina Sablan (Ind-Saipan) was concerned about giving the cannabis commission authority over hemp. She said that hemp is different from cannabis and that there is a proper agency to regulate it.

“…Hemp should properly be considered an ordinary agricultural commodity in light of the Farm Act and would more appropriately be governed by the Department of Lands and Natural Resources, Division of Agriculture,” she told Saipan Tribune in a statement, adding that the majority bloc also acknowledged some of the concerns they shared during floor discussions.

In a separate statement, minority leader Rep. Ed Propst Ind-Saipan) noted that Rep. Marco Peter (R-Saipan) already has a bill for regulating hemp. “So [hemp regulation authority] should not have been re-inserted into [H.B. 21-13]. It should have been taken out and separated.”

Sablan and Propst also cited some Senate errors that they said should have been addressed in a conference committee.

“…One [Senate change] deletes a provision of the current law that has to do with the filling of vacancies and removal of cannabis commissioners for cause,” Sablan said.

“There were numerous errors in the bill that were more than just technical. An example would be a new subsection they [cited] that did not even exist, so there are obviously errors that need to be fixed—it’s sloppy…work,” Propst added without stating specifics.

Additionally, Sablan pointed out that there is no clarity between the classes of licenses for marijuana languages, while also setting a “quite steep” license fee for “small plots of land.”

The bill sets the annual nonrefundable license and application fees for farm plots less than 750 square feet at $1,500.

“…And the [cannabis] commission does not have much flexibility to adjust,” Sablan added.

She said the minority bloc pushed to send H.B. 21-13 to a conference committee to correct the errors and resolve the differences between the bills.

“Too often we see legislation rushed to passage, only to have to come back later to amend the law again and again because mistakes were made that could have been corrected in the legislative process,” she said in her statement.

She cited as a recent example the Marianas Public Land Trust loan bill, the Cannabis Act, and the Casino Act.

“The practice of ‘pass now, fix later’ tends to bring new problems that could have been avoided,” she added. “Unfortunately, the majority did not agree, and I think we can reasonably expect to soon be back at the drawing board with amendments to the law, again.”

Finally, Sablan questioned the composition and qualifications of the cannabis commission. Although not specifically a Senate amendment, Sablan believes it is fitting to have a panel that consists of more diverse backgrounds.

“…Rather than creating new, full-time positions with minimal qualifications at $55,000 each plus benefits, costing taxpayers well over $300,000 for commissioners’ compensation alone, we think it would be more prudent, from a fiscal and policy perspective, to create a commission that consists of individuals with expertise in key areas like public health, law enforcement, commodity regulation, and social justice,” she said, also adding that the Senate amendment that disallows current CNMI government employees to serve on the commission should be revisited as well.

“…Particularly if they have the requisite background and skills and if their positions in relevant agencies would make sense for cannabis regulation. Other cannabis commissions in other jurisdictions are comprised similarly. We have other government commissions here that include government employees. So, it’s not unprecedented in the CNMI either.”

The fourth lawmaker who voted against the bill is Rep. Edmund Villagomez (Ind-Saipan).

Erwin Encinares | Reporter
Erwin Charles Tan Encinares holds a bachelor’s degree from the Chiang Kai Shek College and has covered a wide spectrum of assignments for the Saipan Tribune. Encinares is the paper’s political reporter.
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