Bermuda cannabis: British crown blocks legalization, straining ties

HAMILTON, Bermuda – The idea was to bring Bermuda’s drug laws into the 21st century.

Cannabis laws in Britain’s oldest overseas territory disproportionately hurt black islanders, Attorney General Kathy Lynn Simmons said, representing the “damage of colonialism”.

So the government of this Atlantic archipelago of 64,000 people passed legislation liberalizing the Code. All that was left for it to enact was the approval of the governor, the British monarch’s representative on the territory – usually a formality.

But about 3,300 miles away, in Mother Britain, there was a problem. The Foreign Secretary had concluded that the law would breach Britain’s international drug control treaties, which prohibit signatories from allowing it to do so recreational use of cannabis.

And so Rena Lalgie, the Crown-appointed Governor of Bermuda, said last month it had “received an order” issued on behalf of “Her Majesty” not to approve the bill as it stands.

The denial came despite warnings from Bermuda Prime Minister E. David Burt that it would “destroy” the territory’s relationship with Britain. It has sparked concerns of a constitutional crisis and charges of undue interference by London in an area where talk of independence has long ebbed and flowed.

Simmons said the decision had been made “disappointing but not surprising given the limitations of our constitutional relationship with the UK government and its archaic interpretation of the Narcotics Conventions.”

If not surprising, it was unusual.

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Peter Clegg, Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of the West England, Bristol, said he could not recall any other case in which a Territorial Governor restrained Approval from a bill approved by local government.

It was a “very controversial” move, he said, “because it goes to the heart of a territory’s autonomy and democracy.”

Lynne Winfield, the secretary of Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda, has a name for it.

“I think … it’s a form of the new colonialism,” she said said.

The momentum towards the legalization of cannabis is gaining momentum worldwide. Recreational use of the drug is legal, with some restrictions, in countries such as Canada, Mexico, and South Africa. The German government coalition plans to join this list.

In the United States, federal law prohibits the possession or use of Cannabis. But more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia have legalized its recreational use. And President Biden this month announced plans to pardon anyone convicted of a federal misdemeanor for simple possession of the drug, and urged governors to do the same at the state level.

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Bermuda decriminalized personal possession of up to seven grams of cannabis in 2017, but has not legalized the drug. Burt’s Progressive Labor Party won re-election in a landslide in 2020 on a platform that included pledging to further liberalize cannabis laws.

Under the bill, approved by the Legislature, a “cannabis licensing agency” would issue licenses to grow and sell the drug for personal and commercial use and regulate the new industry. It set the minimum age to apply for a license at 21 and only permitted public consumption of cannabis in cannabis retail outlets or at certain cannabis events.

Burt’s The government initially tried to introduce legislation that was narrower and focused on legalizing medicinal cannabis, but changed course after hearing from members of the public that their proposal did not go far enough. Proponents of legalization here say it still is.

The government says its cannabis regime could help propel the post-pandemic economic recovery while addressing systemic racism in the area, while taking a broader hemispheric reckoning of the sins and legacies of colonialism.

It intended to issue the first licenses to people adversely affected by the ban, including those convicted of simple possession.

Presenting the law, Simmons said laws prohibiting cannabis use were used by the territory’s colonial government and police during the civil uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s to “quell this unrest and put black people on the front lines of the… to systematically criminalize the racial progress movement.”

“If black lives really matter,” she said, “don’t rush to recognize, deconstruct, and reform laws, institutions, and systems that are racist and harmful to black people.” … The unjust colonial legacy of our local laws has not been fully dismantled.”

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Bermuda’s 36-member House of Assembly passed the law in 2021, but the Senate rejected it. Under the constitution of the territory, the House of Commons can pass a new bill identical to the old one a second time and submit it to the governor for approval, even if the Senate blocks it a second time.

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Lalgie reserved approval in May and declined it last month. she said She was open to working with Bermuda “on reforms within the framework of our existing international obligations”. Tanya Davis, a spokeswoman for the governor, told the Washington Post that “the offer of talks remains open.”

A 21-square-mile archipelago of pink-sand beaches, Bermuda is the oldest of Britain’s 14 overseas territories. It has its own constitution and parliament. Britain is responsible for its defence, foreign policy and security.

A playground for the wealthy, home to the descendants of enslaved people brought here by British colonists centuries ago, Bermuda is the latest overseas territory to hold an independence referendum. About 73 percent of the Voters opted to remain a territory in 1995.

Many other jurisdictions that have liberalized their cannabis laws – including Canada, a Commonwealth kingdom in which King Charles III. as Bermuda is head of state – are in violation of the UN treaties that worry Britain, said Damon Barrett, a lecturer at Gothenburg University in Sweden.

The contracts States prohibit the cultivation and export of cannabis for non-medical or scientific purposes. But enforcing those treaties requires diplomatic will from member states, Barrett said, and there’s not “much desire to expend political capital on it.”

Great Britain, the Overseas Territories and the Crown Dependencies form an undivided empire. It is separate from the other Commonwealth realms – countries like Jamaica, Australia and Canada – where the British monarch is also the head of state.

Unlike the realms, the Overseas Territories do not have separate representation at the international level. When Britain ratifies a treaty, it usually does so on behalf of its overseas territories and Crown Dependencies. She can also extend contracts to them.

Britain has a constitutional responsibility for the laws made in overseas territories and Crown Dependencies, which may include ensuring that they comply with its international obligations.

When Simmons introduced the law, she acknowledged that its provisions would go beyond what the treaties allow. but It would be “disingenuous,” she said, for international bodies to sanction Bermuda for easing its cannabis bans when it has rebuked but not penalized countries like Canada.

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“Although we are officially represented by the UK government at international level,” she said, “Bermuda’s own voice must be represented on issues affecting any political, economic or financial interest.”

A Bermuda Alliance, Bermuda’s main opposition party, did not support the bill. She has accused the government of knowing the governor would withhold approval but pushed to force a clash with London to win support for independence.

Political strategist Corey Butterfield said the government could get around the problem by reclassifying how cannabis is scheduled under its drug laws. This does not require the approval of Parliament.

“So the real question is why not do that?” he asked. “Why start the fight in Parliament at all?”

Tina Evans, a spokeswoman for the Bermuda government, declined to respond to questions from The Post. She said the “thing is evolving,” but didn’t elaborate.

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Relations between Britain and its overseas territories can be delicate.

A proposal by the British government this year to govern the British Virgin Islands directly from London, after a public inquiry detailed systemic corruption in the area, drew criticism across the Caribbean and allegations of hyperbole. Britain eventually backed down.

Clegg said disagreements between Britain and its territories originated mainly in London tries to push through changes such as the recognition of same-sex marriages or the abolition of the death penalty for its foreign properties.

The governor of Bermuda approved a bill in 2018 that would remove the right of same-sex couples to marry. The UK government said it disapproved of the law, which was condemned by LGBTQ advocates and human rights groups, but could not intervene.

In 2019, a UK parliamentary committee said the government must be prepared to “intervene” in areas where same-sex marriage is restricted, as it did in 2001 when it decriminalized homosexuality in the areas. So far, Great Britain has not gone down this path.

With cannabis, the question now is what comes next.

“Constitutionally, the UK has the power not to give consent,” Clegg said. “But what if Bermuda makes the change anyway? This might be new territory but could be a way to test Britain’s resolve.”


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