The fledgling marijuana industry in the CNMI may be on an upward trajectory but it not without its challenges, even for something as simple as the importation of marijuana seeds.
Speaking before a hearing by the Senate Committee on Cannabis and Gaming Tuesday, former House speaker Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero, who is the special adviser for cannabis under the Office of the Governor, disclosed the many challenges facing the CNMI Cannabis Commission and the industry.
“The success of this industry for the commercial, recreational sale of cannabis would be largely dependent on other factors that need to be resolved,” he said. “One major one is the importation of seeds.”
Deleon Guerrero said there are seed strains here but, to be truly successful, there has to be adequate, sufficient, diverse supply of different strains, not only for recreational but also for medicinal use.
“We do not control what comes across the border as far as this commission is concerned. That’s the jurisdiction of [the Division of] Customs but they are also bound by the law,” he said, adding that these issues will eventually have to be reckoned with at some point.
Public Law 20-66, the “Taulamwaar Sensible CNMI Cannabis Act of 2018,” authorized personal, medicinal, and commercial use of cannabis or marijuana in the CNMI.
Deleon Guerrero said that, because this cannabis industry is new, they have challenges just to try to collaborate and work with other regulatory agencies. For instance, they tried to work with the Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality on regulations relating to pesticides for cannabis, but he said BECQ was not even equipped to answer their questions.
Deleon Guerrero said they have been consulting too with Division of Public Health for the medicinal marijuana component.
“And that’s partly why our regulations are not in place yet,” he said, adding that Public Health also needs to come on board to give them guidance on things like approved medical conditions or other conditions that warrant medicinal marijuana.
“They’re not even there yet either,” he said.
Deleon Guerrero said they’ve been meeting with the Division of Customs and that one questions they’ve been trying to figure out is the tax issue. He said they have an excise tax for marijuana producers and a Business Gross Revenue surtax on the retail side.
However, according to the Division of Revenue and Taxation, the excise tax is going to be challenging as Customs is the one that assesses such tax. “So these are the questions that need to be answered and they more than likely would need some legislative amendments,” he said.
Deleon Guerrero said they have also been meeting with federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration, which is concerned about this cannabis industry. He said DEA wants them to provide things like a list of marijuana homegrown applicants, but they are bound by the cannabis law not to disclose. He said the DEA also has a federal law to enforce.
“And we have a law to abide by. And where that crosses, there may be issues,” the former speaker said.
He said they are discussing those issues with the Office of the Attorney General and Customs on how they are going to deal with these matters. “Like I said, some are within our control and some are not.”
He said this only means that the CNMI Cannabis Commission has a big job ahead of it as far as regulating the industry.
Deleon Guerrero pointed out that there needs to be some clarifications of the law. On one end, the cannabis commission is authorized to give out licenses for commercial and homegrown cannabis, yet the same law says the commission cannot deny a license.
“So those are the conflicting provisions of this very law. We need to either say, yes, you’re authorized to enforce it or not,” he said.
Deleon Guerrero said there are also other provisions in the cannabis law that are problematic.
“There was no intention to make it problematic. But when we require that all licenses, regardless of when they apply, expire at the same time, especially with one employee to review at the end of next year, we have multiple licenses and all will be expiring at the same time rather than one year from the time they were issued, it causes administrative problems,” he said.
Deleon Guerrero said those are little things that he believes can be addressed through amendments.
He suggested that one of the needed changes to the law would be to at least give some of the revenue to the commission so they can continue to operate. “We have costs that we’re anticipating in order to regulate this industry properly,” Deleon Guerrero added.
Under the circumstances the commission has done an amazing job “to get us to where we are at today.” He said the commission met the deadlines required in the law, promulgated the regulations on time, and developed the licensing procedures on time.
At the same Senate meeting, CNMI Cannabis Commission managing director Monique Sablan held a presentation about the commission and the industry. She said the cannabis or marijuana industry in the Commonwealth is booming as she cited that they received 12 applications for commercial while 11 others have expressed interest.