Marijuana bill passes House

In a three-hour session, the CNMI House of Representatives passed the cannabis legalization bill yesterday, naming it after the late David K. Peter.

In a vote of 18-1-1, with one opposition and one abstention, Rep. Joseph Deleon Guerrero’s (R-Saipan) House Bill 20-178 passed on first and final reading, with Rep. Donald Barcinas (R-Saipan) voting against it and Vice Speaker Janet Maratita (R-Saipan) abstaining from voting.

The bill legalizes the use of cannabis in the CNMI for recreational and medicinal purposes and creates the Cannabis Commission to oversee any associated industries and imposes taxes, fees, and fines.

The next step is for the CNMI Senate to pass the bill. An earlier version of the bill passed the Senate.

The bill, which was first introduced in the Senate through Sen. Sixto Igisomar (R-Saipan) in the 19th Legislature and once more in the current Legislature as Senate Bill 20-62, was previously shelved after being deemed a revenue generating bill, making it illegal according to the CNMI Constitution, which states that revenue-generating bills may only originate from the House.

A House lawmaker, Deleon Guerrero, later agreed to re-introduce it in the House.

The House version, like the Senate version, proposes nine commissioners for the Cannabis Commission—five representing Saipan and two each representing Rota and Tinian. However, Rep. Vinson Sablan (Ind-Saipan) proposed to limit the number of commissioners to only five—three representing Saipan and one each representing Rota and Tinian. The amendment was ultimately adopted.

The bill was further amended by Rep. Ivan Blanco (R-Saipan) to recognize the efforts of Igisomar on the Senate version of the bill and to rename the bill at the request of the senator.

The cannabis legalization bill, which is now called the “Taulumwaar Sensible CNMI Cannabis Act of 2018,” was named after Peter, who was an advocate for the substance over four years ago.

Sensible CNMI was also cited as an organization that advocate for marijuana law reforms in the CNMI.

A Marijuana Policy Project statement quoted Gerry Hemley, co-founder of Sensible CNMI, as saying: “The true essence of legalization has always been about having safe and legal access to cannabis without fear of arrest and harassment. This thoughtful legislation will control, regulate, and tax marijuana in a manner that is similar to alcohol. It was carefully crafted to improve public health, protect children, and keep our communities safe. We hope senators will join their House colleagues in supporting this commonsense measure.”

A separate statement from Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, is quoted in the statement as saying: “We applaud CNMI legislators for keeping this important legislation alive and moving it forward. Taking marijuana off the illegal market and regulating its production and sale will improve public health and safety. Patients with debilitating conditions who could benefit from marijuana deserve steady access to quality-controlled medicine. The Senate now has a chance to make history by signing off on the bill and sending it to Gov. [Ralph DLG] Torres.”

The Marijuana Policy Project describes itself as the nation’s largest marijuana policy organization (https://www.MarijuanaPolicy.org).

The bill passed the House on first and final reading after four amendments.

“The title came from the main author of the bill, Sen. Igisomar,” said Deleon Guerrero. “I actually proposed that we name the bill after him, but he…felt that credit should be given to [Sensible CNMI] and to one of the early proponents who have asked this body for this type of legislation [David Peter],” he added.

‘This is just the beginning’

Deleon Guerrero reiterated after the session that the passage of the legislation is “just the beginning.”

He acknowledged that there are concerns behind the legalization of the substance. “There are still some issues that need to be addressed,” said Deleon Guerrero, without specifically citing the “issues.” “This is a cash-basis type of industry. We have to set forth how it would be collected, how it would be deposited, and how it would be dispersed.”

Deleon Guerrero said a companion bill would be in the works immediately.

“We want to make sure that because it is cash basis, it will not impact our ability to receive federal funding, so there has to be a delineation of how revenues [from cannabis] are treated,” he said.

Sablan pointed out that with the Drug Enforcement Administration still treating cannabis as a Schedule I drug, banks that are regulated by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., or FDIC, want nothing to do with cash obtained from cannabis trade.

“FDIC banks or institution cannot deal with any transaction that involves cannabis,” said Sablan, adding that this is an issue in states where cannabis is legal and regulated.

The FDIC is feared for its authority to possibly shut down a bank that is deemed to conspire with illegal activity, such as money laundering.

“We have to ensure that the Cannabis Commission…and the Legislature come up with regulations on how to deal with the cash transactions,” he said.

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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