NPP delegation has reservations with Medicinal Cannabis bill
SAN JUAN – A clash of positions between the executive branch and the Legislative Assembly on the subject of medical cannabis was evident during the first day of joint public hearings Tuesday by the House of Representatives and the Senate to discuss two bills of both legislative bodies that would create the Medicinal Law, which would regulate that industry on the island.
During the proceedings, the Federal, Political and Economic Relations Committee, chaired by Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, together with the House Judiciary Committee, presided by María Milagros Charbonier, summoned the departments of Health, Economic Development and Commerce (DDEC by its Spanish initials), Justice and Treasury to discuss Senate Bill 340 and House Bill 818, both of which are related to medical cannabis.
It was the legislators of the New Progressive Party (NPP) who showed greater reservations about the bill, which was submitted by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and is part of the strategies for healthcare and economic development presented in the Plan for Puerto Rico of his administration. Meanwhile, the minority delegation fully supported the measure.
Rivera Schatz, for his part, expressed concern that the bill might not meet the requirements of agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), since at the federal level, cannabis is still a controlled substance.
Also, the veteran senator said he has reservations about how the government will manage the revenue earned through the industry and the controls that will create a “safe and reliable” industry.
During the round of questions to the assistant secretary of the Health Department, Francisco Parés Alicea, he indicated that since the industry began to operate on the island – in June 2016, he said – hardly $100,000 has been collected from the sale and dispensation of medicinal cannabis, a fact that made the legislators question whether the industry would really be profitable.
However, Parés Alicea presented projections of the estimated revenue expected from the recently established industry.
“We use the national average of users per thousand residents. There are 8.1 people per thousand residents who are patients. Approximately 27,611 residents would be users, who would incur a monthly expense of $369, that would be $14 million in monthly revenue. But…this calculation could change,” he warned.
For his part, DDEC Secretary Manuel Laboy Rivera used the state of Colorado as a case study, where, over the past year, $12.3 million in tax revenue was generated from medical cannabis sales, while licensing and related rights generated about $8.5 million for a total of more than $20 million in revenue for the state.
“I have eight companies that are going to be located in abandoned government buildings. These people go into those buildings and fix them. In three years it could represent $240 million in revenue for the government. I defend the bill because it has the necessary controls to make this a serious industry,” Laboy Rivera said.
In his testimony, the head of the DDEC also noted that during fiscal year 2016, the state of Washington collected $5.2 million, or $ 2.1 million in municipal sales taxes and $792,906 in state taxes, for a total of about $8 million in medical cannabis-related revenue.
However, the explanation did not seem to impress Charbonier, who questioned whether the results include the sale of cannabis for recreational use.
The lawmaker pointed out in an aside with the press that her concern is based on the fact that this industry was established to benefit patients and regulation was issued through an executive order “for some people to become millionaires.”
“No one is overseeing any of the dispensaries out there. There are no specific measures [regulate] cannabis and, worse, where that money is deposited,” Charbonier said.
– Reporter Cindy Burgos Alvarado contributed to this story.