The latest place to legalize marijuana, thanks to the governor’s signature on Friday, is not a United States state as many might assume. Instead, It’s the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which is a small Pacific territory with a population of nearly 50,000 people.
Governor Ralph Torres signed the bill allowing adults over 21 years of age to legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana, as well as infused products and extracts. Regulators will begins issuing licenses for cannabis producers, testing facilities, processors, retailers, wholesalers and lounges, while only a small number of plants will be allowed for home cultivation.
CNMI goes down in history as the first place in the United States to launch a commercial cannabis legalization system through an act of lawmakers, according to Forbes, rather than voters with a ballot initiative. Vermont legislators did in fact pass a bill to end marijuana prohibition this year, but it only enables possession and home cultivation, not legal sales.
The territory is also the first U.S. jurisdiction to completely skip the medical marijuana phase and go directly from cannabis being totally illegal to now allowing recreational use. “I am proud of our CNMI leadership, citizens and national organizations for working together to thoughtfully develop and approve a progressive piece of legislation that that will improve the quality of life for so many,” Lawerence J. Duponcheel, co-founder of the advocacy group Sensible CNMI, said. “Together, we are telling the world that we do not feel that our citizens should be stigmatized and criminalized for the responsible adult use of cannabis and that they should no longer be denied access to this life-saving medicine.”
As the governor previously held many concerns about the public safety implications of legalizing marijuana, it was uncertain if he was going to sign or veto the legislation. But Torres ultimately decided to hold a ceremony to highlight his decision and in result he signed the bill. “Today, our people made history. We took a stand to legalize marijuana in the CNMI for recreational, medical, and commercial use,” he said in a statement.
Although during his signing, Torres did remove some provisions of the proposal, including one to allow a government entity to be licensed to grow cannabis. Another provision canceled was one requiring recreational marijuana consumers to obtain $5 permits.
Legalization supports hope other countries will begin following in the same steps and will start seeing huge implications for the rest of the country. “This is the first legislatively enacted law in the U.S. that taxes and regulates marijuana for adults’ use, but it will be far from the last,” Karen O’Keefe, state policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in an interview. “New Jersey could follow suit within weeks, and as many as five more state legislatures could do so within the next year. Public support for legalizing marijuana is strong and growing, and elected officials are increasingly getting the message.”
Although supporters are hoping to broaden the marijuana industry among other countries, other advocates believe it will add pressure on the federal government on its approach to cannabis. “The leadership and commonsense displayed by the elected officials of CNMI is yet another pivotal crack in the wall of prohibition,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said. “It’s time for Congress to take note of this new historic event and move to allow states and territories to set their own policies by removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act.”
Voters in several states with the U.S. will also witness marijuana questions in November. Michigan and North Dakota will both have recreational legalization measures on their ballots, while Missouri and Utah will decide on medical cannabis proposals.
Meanwhile, Torres and other officials are continuing to work towards a regulatory commission to implement CNMI’s new law. He wants lawmakers to start passing separate companion legislation to “strengthen this bill for our community’s public safety and public health,” he said in his signing statement.