U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. recently called out to residents with cannabis convictions to contact the government to determine if those convictions are eligible for expungement.
The territory’s cannabis law, Act No. 8679, dictates that any cannabis convictions be automatically expunged if it involves an individual in possession of two ounces of cannabis or less. “This initiative reflects the Governor’s commitment to justice and fairness in applying the law, especially in light of recent changes that have made the expungement process more complex than initially intended,” the governor’s most recent notice stated. “However, to ensure full compliance and address any potential gaps in data received from the Judicial Branch of the Virgin Islands, Governor Bryan requests individuals impacted by this law to proactively contact Government House.”
Special Advisor Positive Nelson will manage the effort to expand expungement services by leading a designated task force, which includes “…representatives from the office of the Virgin Islands Attorney General, the Office of the Territorial Public Defender, Legal Services of the Virgin Islands, the Virgin Islands Bar Association, and the Virgin Islands Justice Institute.”
The brief notice also stated that moving forward with the requirements of Act. No. 8679 “…represents a significant step toward rectifying past inequities in the criminal justice system. The Governor’s Office encourages all eligible individuals to come forward and take advantage of this opportunity for a fresh start.”
Previously, the U.S. Virgin Islands government has been quiet on its progress regarding expungement. An article published by The Virgin Daily News last week stated that the government was supposed to issue the first “auto-expungement report” by Nov. 18, or 10 months after the passage of the cannabis act, but no updates had been provided regarding the progress of the initiative. Likewise, no announcements had been made regarding pardons by Bryan.
Former Sen. Janelle Sarauw, a co-sponsor of the bill, told The Virgin Daily News he’s disappointed in the lack of progress. “I think it’s a travesty that the equity piece hasn’t even been addressed,” Sarauw said. “That was the intent of having the companion legislation to ensure that those who have been disenfranchised or locked up for cannabis can have a fair shot at life. And it’s just, it’s appalling that nothing has been done.”
The local news outlet claims it has repeatedly reached out to the government for updates, but was provided with little information. In September, Justice Department spokesperson Sandra Goomansingh responded to The Virgin Daily News’s requests, but only said that “your questions have been directed to the OCR so a comment should be forthcoming.” The law states that $250,000 has been earmarked to support an expungement program, but it appears that the funds have not yet been spent.
Earlier in November, The Virgin Daily News reached out to the U.S. Virgin Islands Office of Cannabis Regulation (OCR) Director Hannah Carty, who estimated that the territory’s cannabis program would begin in January 2024, alongside the “Cannabis Registry system.” “The OCR is summarizing the information and will present the next steps at the next Board meeting,” Carty told the outlet. “The Board is scheduling a meeting in the next two weeks, pending member availability.”
Currently, the Cannabis Advisory Board has room for a total of 11 representatives, but Bryan has only appointed four people so far.
The U.S. Virgin Islands legalized adult-use cannabis when Bryan signed The Virgin Islands Cannabis Use Act in January 2023. “We are bringing the opportunities to you, but you must also do your part to seize these opportunities,” Bryan said earlier this year. “It is my goal to make sure many of us who have been negatively impacted by the criminalization of cannabis are afforded every opportunity to participate in this new and legal cannabis industry.”
At the time, he also explained that people with cannabis convictions should take action themselves in order to expedite expungement. “However, the best way to ensure the expungement of your records for marijuana related convictions and any other eligible convictions is to file a petition with the Court seeking that expungement,” Bryan said during the January legalization announcement. “Don’t wait for the opportunities to come to you, go out and grab them.”
In September 2023, the Virgin Islands Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs announced that the board officially released its draft rules to cover both medical and recreational cannabis regulation. This prompted an invitation for public comment, which lasted until Oct. 10.
The cannabis law allows adults 21 and older to possess up to two ounces of cannabis, half an ounce of concentrates, or one ounce of products like edibles to be used recreationally, or for sacramental purposes. Additionally, medical cannabis patients may possess up to four ounces of cannabis, one ounce of concentrates, and two ounces of cannabis products.
The law also allows cannabis cultivation for sacramental use, but only for those who apply and are approved for a permit.
Cannabis sales will include a 18% tax on recreational products, and 3/4 of the revenue will go toward a general fund that provides 15% to behavioral health programs, 5% to support homelessness efforts, and 5% for youth-related programs.
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