St. Kitts and Nevis has begun its first steps towards a legal cannabis industry. However, experts say there will be challenges.

By Kenichi Serino

Last week, the National Assembly passed a law that allowed for the decriminalisation of cannabis, describing it as a first step toward creating a legitimate cannabis industry in St. Kitts and Nevis.

“The establishment of a modern industry requires a lot of work and preparation and especially one which has to date been part and parcel of deeply held ideas regarding its use, its legitimacy, and even its legality,” said Prime Minister Dr Timothy Harris during the sitting in the National Assembly on July 30.

But while a cannabis industry could be potentially lucrative for the Federation and aid in its development–particularly that of agriculture–experts have warned that building a successful industry is difficult with other nations struggling to develop it in the face of regulation and a plant which has not been cultivated on an industrial scale in many jurisdictions for decades.

Jamaica, for example, decriminalised cannabis in 2015 and has attempted to set up a legal cannabis industry including the production of medicinal marijuana and the empowerment of Rastafarian farmers who have historically been persecuted over their use of marijuana. However, some Rastafarian farmers have criticised the plans, saying that the fees which can go up to US $10,000 a year exclude small farmers and making cultivation the province of big business and foreign investors.

University of West Indies-Mona researcher Dr Machel Emanuel said that while programmes and policy to help small farmers have been put in place by the Jamaican government, they have not been successful because of a lack of financial resources while pricing the fees in US dollars sends the wrong message to small farmers.

“It sends a signal that it’s foreigners and its not cheap. So it sends the wrong message to the local entrepreneur,” said Emanuel.

Emanuel said that in Jamaica, cannabis companies have to be majority locally owned. However, these partnerships are still unequal because foreign investors are still supplying most of the capital.

“The foreigner puts up 100 percent for the capital. [Paying for] Infrastructure, branding, glasshouses,” said Emanuel. “Basically the local person allowed you entry into the market but not necessarily to stay on an equal basis in sustainable terms.”

Emanuel added that local farmers, while they had knowledge of growing cannabis, were also disadvantaged when it comes to growing medicinal marijuana which must consistently have the same effects between crops.

“Growing cannabis [illegally] is not the same as growing it in a regulated market. Within the unregulated market, that euphoria is left up to chance. If I use [medicinal marijuana] for insomnia and it’s helping me, if I get it next year will I get the same reaction?”

“The level of quality management systems that are needed in place, so if something goes wrong we know where this product came from. There needs to be that level of record-keeping,” said Emanuel.

“If you understand Caribbean agriculture we have not done that with other agricultural commodities. It will be a challenge for Caribbean farmers to put that in place.”

Regulations will also be a factor in the cannabis industry and how St. Kitts and Nevis approaches regulating their own industry will be key to the Federation’s success.

“Regulation and legislative framework are the most important things when it comes to judging this industry and how well it will do,” said cannabis consultant Marcus Ramkissoon.

Ramkissoon was appointed by the government to sit on the recently announced St. Kitts and Nevis’ Cannabis Core Committee. The committee is intended to help the Federation establish a cannabis industry that will not run afoul of international drug treaties.

Ramkissoon said a lack of proper regulations and ignoring international treaties has been the problem in other countries in the region, including Jamaica and Antigua respectively.

Regarding medicinal marijuana, Ramkissoon said Jamaica has still not been able to export it commercially four years after the legislation was originally passed and had only opened up five dispensaries within the country.

“They don’t have those requirements and rules in place necessary for those businesses to follow the right path to export,’ said Ramkissoon.

In the case of Antigua, because it had effectively legalised some cannabis use, rather than only decriminalize, it was no longer in compliance with the International Narcotics Control Board, limiting the countries it can export to, according to Ramkissoon.

“St. Kitts [and Nevis] may be the first island within the region to effect legal export. St. Vincent is ahead but they haven’t put in their electronic tracking system which is essential,” said Ramikisson.

“Because St Vincent doesn’t have that tracking system in place, if St Kitts moves forward fast it could be first.”

In addition to medicinal marijuana, interest in developing a legal cannabis industry has also been around the production of hemp for manufacturing and Cannabidiol, better known as CBD oil–a supplement that proponents say has health and medicinal properties. CBD has become increasingly popular in the US and European Union and is expected to be worth billions of dollars in the near future.

However, larger countries are also producing cannabis. China is presently the largest producer of hemp in the world while U.S. National Hemp Association Executive Director Erica Mcbride Stark said acreage in that country was set to triple.

“Our acreage just this year is likely to be at least triple what it was last year and there certainly will be an interest in supporting locally grown hemp as the industry gets up and running,” said Stark.

“Should we get a clear regulatory path from FDA (Food and Drug Administration) then we may see demand outweigh supply making exporting to the US necessary. It’s just a little too soon to tell.”

Ramkissoon believes that with a clear regulatory path, St. Kitts and Nevis can also enter the CBD as well as the medicinal marijuana market. However, they were likely to get “out-competed” by larger counties over time.

“They might be able to produce an entire St. Kitts worth of hemp in one area of their lands and in that regard, their price will be lower than what we can produce our CBD for and we can be out-competed in that regard,” he said.

Ramkissoon said that in addition to China, the United States and Canada, Colombia was also preparing to get into the cannabis export industry.

“We will be out-competed for lack of better words. When Colombia  starts producing hemp they’re going to blow everyone out of the water.”

However, Ramkissoon said there was an opportunity if St. Kitts and Nevis also embraced cannabis research and developed new products that it could market and sell.

“Then the products we gain from the research will be able to have more claim internationally, more demand internationally and then we can become an exporter of those CBD products,” said Ramkissoon.

Ramkissoon also believes that with proper regulations, more local farmers can also be empowered. He said in preliminary talks with the government, as many as half of the licenses for growing cannabis could be set aside for farmers at a lowered cost who might then pay back the license fees when they’re successful.

“We want them to become as big as foreign investors,” said Ramkissoon.

He said that if successful, a cannabis industry could employ hundreds of farm workers and thousands of workers in ancillary industries such as construction.

“Good, well paying, secure jobs.”