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Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Votes to Legalize Marijuana

Cannabis is currently totally prohibited in CNMI, but a newly-approved bill would establish medical cannabis, industrial hemp and a retail market.

Adam Drury

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Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Votes to Legalize Marijuana
Wikimedia Commons

5,871 miles of open Pacific Ocean waters separate the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) from the coast of California. But the 15-island chain that makes up the United States’ westernmost territory is poised to do something no U.S. state has ever done.

On Wednesday, 18 of CNMI’s 20 legislators voted to approve a bill to legalize cannabis for adult use. The bill would also legalize medical cannabis and industrial hemp. And if CNMI Governor Ralph Torres enacts the bill, the territory will make legalization history—twice.

CNMI Would Be First U.S. Jurisdiction to Go From Total Prohibition to Full Legalization

This isn’t the first time CNMI lawmakers attempted to legalize cannabis. As recently as May, the CNMI Senate approved a piece of legislation nearly identical to the House-approved bill. Procedural issues, however, stymied the bill’s progress.

After another false start in the Senate, the House opted to file its own bill. It took less than a week for the full chamber to vote to approve the proposal.

That act alone makes CNMI unique among the 9 U.S. states that have legalized adult-use marijuana. Vermont comes closest, having legalized marijuana through a legislative process rather than a ballot initiative. But unlike CNMI’s proposed legislation, Vermont’s law doesn’t establish a retail market. The Mariana Islands’ legislation would.

There’s a second way CNMI would make legalization history if the bill becomes law. Every U.S. state that has legalized adult-use marijuana did so only after establishing a medical cannabis program. But in CNMI, there is no medical marijuana. The territory would be the first U.S. jurisdiction to go from total prohibition to full legalization.

What’s Next for Legal Cannabis in U.S. Territories?

Despite the tremendous distance between the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the continental United States, the territory has been closely watching legal cannabis unfold there. Indeed, the overwhelming support for the proposal in the House is due to lawmakers’ recognizing the significant benefits of legal weed.

The full text of the legislation, SB 20-62, cites how states with regulated markets for marijuana “have observed real and significant benefits to public health, safety and quality of life for all residents,” and goes on to list medical benefits like treatments for pain, epilepsy and PTSD, social benefits like a reduction in overdose deaths and lowered crime and economic benefits like tax revenue and job growth.

But the bill still has a couple more hurdles to clear before it becomes law. The CNMI Cannabis Act of 2018 is currently on its way back to the Senate for approval. After that, it will head to the desk of Gov. Ralph Torres, a Republican who has expressed concerns about legalization.

In response to House passage of the bill, Torres stressed the importance of taking “a look at both sides of the coin.” Torres wondered about the crime statistics in states with legal weed and other public safety issues.

Whether those reservations would ultimately lead Gov. Torres to veto the legislative effort and oppose the will of CNMI residents, however, remains to be seen. Public hearings about the act had higher attendance than any hearings senators could remember. Initially, legislators had designed the bill as a voter referendum before adopting it in the Senate.

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