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UK Government’s Decision To Reject Bermuda’s Attempts To Legalise Cannabis ‘Should Not Come As A Surprise’

AFTER officially becoming the third ever female Prime Minister of the UK on Tuesday, September 6 2022, Liz Truss handed over her duties as Foreign Secretary to James Cleverly. 

The 53-year-old, who was appointed Education Secretary in July following the resignation of nearly 60 ministers, will become the sixth Foreign Secretary in just eight years, as many as we saw in the previous 24. 

Within hours of being appointed, the decision was made to block Bermuda’s flagship cannabis legalisation bill, a decision which the British Overseas Territory has been waiting for the Foreign Office and new PM to make since May. 

While some reports suggest the decision was made by Ms Truss instead of Mr Cleverly, and that the move will ‘destroy’ relations between the UK and Bermuda, one expert told BusinessCann this was a largely expected move from the new UK Government, regardless of how long they’ve been in power. 

Cannabis in Bermuda

Bermuda, which has a population of just under 62k, has been exploring the liberalisation of cannabis for over a decade, seeing prominent members of the then ruling Progressive Labour Party (PLP) call for a debate on decriminalising those caught with small amounts of cannabis in 2010.

Though these calls were ultimately rejected in favour of ‘more pressing issues’, support among the island’s residents and within its Government has been building ever since, seeing it pass the Cannabinoid Pharmaceutical Products Act to effectively legalise medical cannabis in 2014. 

After regaining power in 2017, the PLP moved ahead with decriminalising the possession of up to 7 grams of cannabis, while the new Premier, David Burt, one of the original party members to call for a debate in 2010, pledged to push ahead with further regulatory changes involving medical cannabis. 

Like the current German ‘traffic light coalition’, one of the major pledges of the PLP in Bermuda’s October 2020 election was the legalisation of cannabis on the island and the creation of a new industry. 

In February 2021, the Cannabis Licensing Bill, which would see the creation of a system to legally regulate the ‘sale, supply, import, cultivation, manufacture, research, transport or export of cannabis or medicinal cannabis for certain purposes’, passed the House of Assembly, Bermuda’s lower house. 

While the bill made it through the lower house, 40% of PLP MPs did not vote in favour of it, marking the early signs of contention within the Bermudan Government over the issue. 

Soon afterwards, Bermuda’s upper house, the Senate, saw votes tied on whether to pass the bill, which in constitutional terms meant the bill was defeated. 

Its defeat meant the Government was forced to place the bill on hold for a year, but in March 2022, the House of Assembly greenlit the bill a second time, this time with a decisive vote of 18–6. 

Bermudan law prevents the Senate from voting down a bill that has passed through the lower house twice, meaning the bill was passed to Governor Rena Lalgie, who is the representative of the British monarch in Bermuda.

In May, Ms Lalgie made the decision to ‘reserve Royal Assent’, the process by which a bill officially passes into law, stopping short of entirely rejecting Royal Assent. 

She said that, as she saw it, the bill was not in line with Britain’s obligations under the UN’s 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, a hurdle Germany is also currently working its way around. 

She said she ‘therefore had no choice but to reserve Assent of the Bill under Section 35 (2) of Constitution and to notify the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs’. 

This essentially saw the decision handed to the then Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who remained silent on the bill until last week, when it was officially denied Royal Assent. 

Impact of the Decision

The wider implications of the decision are complex, both for Bermuda, which is now grappling with a potential constitutional crisis over how to move ahead with the bill the ruling party promised to adopt, and for Britain’s other Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. 

Bermuda’s Attorney General Kathy Lynn Simmons, who first put forward the legislation in 2019, said that the ‘people of Bermuda have democratically expressed their desire for a regulated cannabis licensing regime’ and that the Government ‘intends to continue to advance this initiative, within the full scope of its constitutional powers’. 

The island nation’s Shadow Home Affairs Secretary, Scott Pearman, went as far to call the bill an attempt by Bermuda’s Premier to push for independence from the UK. 

While this is the first time in recent history that the UK has intervened to block a bill from Royal Assent, sparking a vehement reaction from factions within the Bermudan Government, others have branded this a near formality. 

Steve Oliver, Co-Founder and Director of The Canna Consultants, who were contracted by the Isle of Man Government to draft the legislative and regulatory structure for the cannabis industry, said: “This decision has been treated with alarm on social media but that is disingenuous at best. 

“The UK decision to deny Royal Assent should not come as a surprise. Did anyone actually believe that the UK would allow dependences to legislate for adult recreational use? 

“This is an opportunity for Bermuda and other dependencies to depart from colonial rule and act autonomously. Whether they can do so is a political and economic decision depending on whether the dependency is fiscally tied or in economic handcuffs.”

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