Bill to Legalize Cannabis in Northern Mariana Islands Lands on Governor’s Desk

Gov. Ralph Torres (R) has 28 days to veto the bill or sign it into law.
Bill to Legalize Cannabis in Northern Mariana Islands Lands on Governor's Desk

After its back-and-forth journey between the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands’ two legislative chambers, a bill to move the U.S. territory from total cannabis prohibition to full legalization is headed to the desk of Republican Gov. Ralph Deleon Guerrero Torres. SB 20-62 passed the CNMI House earlier this month. Today, the Senate voted without opposition to approve the bill and send it to the governor. CNMI senators say it took just 6 minutes to pass the bill. Now, Gov. Torres has four weeks to either sign the bill into law or veto it. If Torres fails to act on the legislation, it will automatically become law.

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is a U.S. territory comprised of 15 islands. It resides in the Pacific ocean south of Japan, east of the Philippines, and north of Papua New Guinea. CNMI’s nearest neighbor is an island to the south, the U.S. territory of Guam. Nearly 6,000 miles of open ocean separate it from the coast of California. But that doesn’t mean residents and lawmakers haven’t been keeping a close watch on legalization efforts on the continental mainland.

In fact, the success of legalization programs in the states are an explicit point of reference in CNMI’s legalization bill. The economic, social and health benefits documented in studies are what inspired CNMI lawmakers’ full-throttle approach to legalizing cannabis and hemp. It’s an effort they’ve been at since 2015, when the Senate first introduced a legalization bill. And after overcoming a few procedural obstacles, lawmakers in both chambers used their extensive history deliberating the issue to fast-track the bill to Gov. Torres this summer.

If the bill becomes law, which will be by the end of September or sooner, it will make history twice. First, CNMI will have legalized cannabis via a legislative process like Vermont. But unlike Vermont, and unique among adult-use states, the legislative action would immediately establish a regulated retail market. Second, the bill would take CNMI from a prohibition posture to one that embraces medical and adult-use cannabis simultaneously. No other state or U.S. jurisdiction has made the move from total prohibition to full legalization.

A detailed overview of the CNMI Cannabis Act of 2018 and its full text are available here. These are the main takeaways: anyone 21 and over, and those under 21 with qualifying medical conditions, can possess up to an ounce of flower, 16 ounces of solid or 72 ounces of liquid cannabis-infused products and five grams of extracts or concentrates.

The bill would also legalize home cultivation by creating a Homegrown Marijuana Registry where adults can sign up to grow up to six mature and 12 immature plants. Medical patients will be permitted to cultivate twice that amount.

It also sets up a regulated tax system for producers and retail sales, but exempts medical cannabis from taxation. CNMI will also introduce new cannabis business regulations and licensing requirements in six areas, including social lounges that would permit public/private cannabis consumption. Finally, a five-member CNMI Cannabis Commission will oversee regulations and licensing for commercial cannabis and hemp.

Cannabis advocates in CNMI know they’re on the verge of making history and setting a valuable precedent for legalization efforts in other states and U.S. territories. They see a chance for CNMI to take the lead on a crucial national issue. And they’re hopeful Gov. Torres will recognize the significant economic, public health and consumer benefits of a legal, regulated and taxed cannabis industry. The governor has 28 days to decide.

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