Experts: Legal cannabis can spur Caribbean economies

File photo 
- Jeff K. Mayers
File photo - Jeff K. Mayers

ENTREPRENEURS eager to enter the marijuana business are calling on the Government to bring legislation which will allow them to do so without fear of being arrested.

The Cannabis Control Bill, aimed at legitimising marijuana retail businesses in Trinidad and Tobago, has been a topic of discussion since the amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act in December 2019.

The amendments allowed for the possession of up to 30 grammes of marijuana and growing four female plants for every adult in a home.

The bill was sent to a joint select committee (JSC) led by Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi in 2019, which was initially due to report to Parliament in February last year, but there have been some setbacks.

Chairman of the legislative committee and member of the JSC Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat told Sunday Newsday last Thursday the bill is expected to be laid in Parliament sometime after March as the JSC is still accepting stakeholders' suggestions.

Sunday Newsday spoke with two entrepreneurs, who asked not to be named since marijuana sales and products with cannabis are still illegal. The owner of Haze Bites said she began selling marijuana-laced desserts, but stopped using her cannabis culinary skills after reading the legislation carefully.

“I hope that sales become legal soon. I thought it was legal when the decriminalisation happened, so I started selling. Then when I read the law, I stopped. One of my concerns is that they don’t make it difficult for small business to get involved.”

Marijuana activist and certified cannabis expert Marcus Ramkissoon had the same request.

“I want a fair market with no monopoly. Portugal gave one licence to a foreign company. I want no licence restrictions."

Ramkissoon, who was instrumental in drafting the bill and other legislation throughout the Caribbean, said TT needed the right regulations in place. He suggested anti-monopoly clauses and social equity clauses, but they were removed. He hoped they would be reintroduced to curb monopolisation of the market by either foreign companies or “one or two local companies.”

“I want those people, poor people are allowed to own businesses in the field.”

The owner of Bakery After Dark said she is in the process of registering her business and, like Haze Bites, wants to come out of the shadows.

“I love baking and love cannabis, so yeah, I decided it was great to mix the two.

"This is a way to help many economies grow. Yes, legalising it will cause the price to drop, but it will help the country in the long run. People will begin to cultivate marijuana and it will save the State money from jailing marijuana users.”

Many of her customers are older people who eat cannabis-containing desserts to combat pain and insomnia. The younger ones mostly buy them for recreational purposes.

Some edible providers are being shut down, as being in possession of large amounts of raw ingredients is still unlawful.

“I want to be able to do my business without fear or judgement and be creative is what I want. I want to do what I love doing without being arrested,” she said, having started her business in 2019.

Based on his experience, founder of CanEx Douglas Gordon said access to capital is a huge stumbling block for entrepreneurs entering the cannabis market.

A juvenille marijuana plant. - Jeff K Mayers

Financial knowledge is also needed, he stressed.

"Starting and operating a cannabis enterprise in a highly regulated environment is a significant and complicated undertaking,”

Douglas has done work in 15 countries relating to marijuana legislation.

He warned entrepreneurs that anyone looking to enter the industry must understand they will have to finance their dreams, as financial institutions' assistance is not a realistic expectation in today's global legal landscape.

Haze Bites' owner said she began out of a need in March 2020, at the beginning of the lockdown to fight the pandemic when job losses were feared. Her passion for culinary challenges mixed with her love for cannabis spawned the marijuana-laced desserts.

After watching the Netflix series Cooked With Weed, she said she felt stuck and wanted to go beyond the desserts and started doing infused foods like hamburgers and portions of pasta.

"I want to be remembered as the pioneer of infused food. I hate that it is taboo. I hope that it can reach the point that the State can benefit from it, but it is hard to convince the older heads.”

Ramkissoon advised that TT should accept the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) guidelines to make banking funds from marijuana and marijuana products sales hassle-free. He highlighted instances in California where some marijuana sellers were denied banking access when the state first legalised cannabis. He also warned that without the proper legislation, exporting marijuana and marijuana products will be impossible.

Gordon said the Government must become knowledgeable as it seeks to enter the marijuana market. He, like Ramkissoon, said it is important that the regulations are well defined to facilitate the needs and realities of both local and international laws.

Asked if TT should join other countries for a unified front in the marijuana market, Douglas said: “Absolutely! I am working with a team of people to develop this as an initiative.

"The Caribbean as a collective market, with its local populations and tourist traffic, represents a potential addressable market of 60 million, and that is significant. It has extremely positive implications for small-business expansion, job creation, foreign currency generation, expanded regional trade and improved health and productivity.”

On the fear of a monopoly, Douglas said it may be more myth than reality. Real or not, he said in order to maximise the benefits of a legal cannabis industry, it is important that unnecessary and “overly restrictive barriers” are not erected to make it difficult for small businesses.

The legislation should bring to life the TT Cannabis Licensing Authority, which would be responsible for the regulatory control of the handling of cannabis.

It was introduced in the House of Representatives by the AG on November 22, 2019. The body will issue licences and monitor proper handling of cannabis, including disposal when necessary. The authority will be responsible for eight types of licences for things such as importing and exporting cannabis and cannabis products along with cultivating and transport licenses. The authority will also issue religious licences.

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