US territory legalizes marijuana in a historic legislative vote
By Meg Ellis
Sep 22, 2018
The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a small commonwealth of the U.S. consisting of 15 islands in the Pacific Ocean and home to little more than 53,000 people, made marijuana legalization history this week.
Earlier on Friday, Sept. 21, Gov. Ralph Torres signed the Taulamwaar Sensible CNMI Cannabis Act into law, making the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands the first United States territory to legalize recreational marijuana.
The CNMI is also the first place in the U.S. to create a commercial cannabis legalization system through their legislature, rather than through a ballot initiative. Vermont legalized cannabis via the state legislature but did not include provisions for the sale of marijuana.
To complete the trifecta of firsts, the Commonwealth is also the first U.S. territory to have a legalized recreational cannabis program without first having a medical marijuana program.
“Today, our people made history,” Gov. Torres said in a statement. “We took a stand to legalize marijuana in the CNMI for recreational, medical, and commercial use.”
What the new law looks like
The CNMI Cannabis Act looks a lot like other recreational cannabis legalization pieces of legislation. Under the new law, adults over the age of 21 may legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana in addition to cannabis-infused products and extracts.
CNMI regulators will issue licenses for cannabis retailers, processors, testing facilities, and producers. The legislation even addresses the issues of home cultivation and social cannabis lounges.
The law goes into effect in 30 days, and Gov. Torres reminded the Commonwealth that it was not yet legal to use marijuana yet. “We have 30 days to set up our Cannabis Commission by appointing members from Saipan, Tinian, Rota, and the Northern Islands, and our local legislative delegations would need to confirm them within 30 days,” said the governor in a statement. “Then, our commission have 180 days to create the regulations and promulgate them. The regulations take into effect 10 days after adoption and publication with our Commonwealth Register.”
The Cannabis Commission shall consist of five members and will serve as the regulatory agency overseeing commercially-sold marijuana and hemp. Additionally, the Commission shall establish a Homegrown Marijuana Registry through which adults and patients requiring medicinal marijuana may receive approval to grow up to six mature cannabis plants.
Within 180 days, the CNMI Cannabis Commission must adopt rules, regulations, and procedures for the six types of commonwealth marijuana businesses: producers, cannabis testing facilities, marijuana processors, retailers, wholesalers, and cannabis lounges. Once these regulations are adopted, the Commission will begin accepting license applications.
A bill with bipartisan support
Before passage, the bill received a surprising level of bipartisan support, passing the Commonwealth Senate with a 6-0-2 vote. The House approved the bill with an 18-1-1 vote only last month.
Upon learning of the bill’s signature, Lawerence Duponcheel, co-founder of Sensible CNMI, stated, “We are proud of our governor and the Legislature for ending the failed policy of marijuana prohibition in the Northern Marianas and adopting a more sensible system of regulation.”
Fellow co-founder of Sensible CNMI Gerry Hemley concurred with Duponcheel and added that “The true essence of legalization has always been about the freedom of choice, to use cannabis, without fear of arrest and harassment. It is incredibly satisfying to know that adults and medical patients in CNMI will no longer be punished for consuming cannabis, and by this time next year, they will have safe, legal, and reliable access to it.”