Since cannabis legalization became the law of the land on the entire West Coast of the United States, much of the weed-concerned American public turned their attention to the East and Midwest. But the legalization trend has also continued west of the West Coast. Two U.S. territories, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, legalized cannabis for adult use within the past year — and other U.S. territories are quietly making moves in that direction.
America has five major territories with partial sovereign rule that fall under U.S. authority, where the residents are citizens or nationals of the United States (but only allowed a vote in the primary of presidential elections). Though physically remote, the U.S. territories are of course still influenced politically by movements in the 50 U.S. states.
Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero cited the progress of legalization in the United States when she signed the territory’s Cannabis Industry Act on April 4 of this year.
“I think the federal government will make it legal,” Guerrero opined at the signing. “There are 32 states that have medicinal cannabis. Ten states have adult-use cannabis. That’s the trend.”
Guam hopped aboard the legalization train a few months after the Northern Mariana Islands, an archipelago that dots the Pacific Ocean to the northeast of Guam. In late 2018, “the Northern Mariana Islands” became the answer to a pretty specific trivia question: What is the only U.S. state or territory to legalize recreational cannabis with a unanimous vote, as well as the only Republican-controlled U.S. entity to legalize cannabis sales?
The Northern Mariana Islands are also unique in that they jumped straight from criminalization to adult-use legalization, without opting to legalize medical cannabis or decriminalize first.
Still, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands made sense as the first two territories to legalize recreational cannabis. According to the 2012 UNODC Drug Report, the two were second and third in per-capita cannabis use among all nations of the world, behind only Palau, another Pacific island nation.
In the Caribbean to the east, Puerto Rico has a thriving medical program, but recreational use remains illegal in the territory. Over 77,000 patients have signed up on the island of 3.2 million, and the list of conditions for which people can apply to be a patient includes cancer, chronic pain, anxiety, arthritis and many other maladies. While medical use was legalized by executive order in 2015 and codified into a program two years later, the movement is brewing for further action.
In January, Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan, called for cannabis decriminalization as a measure to fight violent crime. The Puerto Rican government has also taken the unusual step of actively promoting medical cannabis to its residents, launching an ad campaign about the medical benefits of cannabis with a goal of reaching 100,000 new patients by the end of 2019.
In the nearby U.S. Virgin Islands, medicinal cannabis finally broke through after voters approved a ballot referendum supporting a medical program in 2014. Several times since then, former Sen. Terrance “Positive” Nelson introduced a bill in the Virgin Islands legislature to create a medical program — and this year he finally succeeded. Nelson’s victory was aided by the election of Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., who stated his support for a medical program when he was campaigning. The program authorizes doctors, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, naturopaths, chiropractors and homeopaths to certify a patient for medical cannabis with any of a long list of conditions, similar to that of Puerto Rico.
The outlier among the major U.S. territories is American Samoa, where cannabis is criminalized for any use — and the penalties, which start at a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession, are some of the harshest around. Discrete users can reportedly still get away with it, but they do so at tremendous risk.
The U.S. territories, like a growing number of U.S. states, seem entirely undeterred by federal prohibition. Emboldened by the success states have had in establishing medical and recreational programs, the territories have proceeded in their wake, often leaping several intermediary steps that states have traveled over in the last decade.
In addition to the Northern Mariana Islands going straight to adult-use legalization from criminalization, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands started their medical programs with a robust list of conditions, including chronic pain — a key detail that helps medical cannabis replace or preempt opioid use.
The last two years of huge progress in four of the five territories show the power of the legalization movement, as it works through more and more U.S. states and beyond, into the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
TELL US, which U.S. state or territory do you think will legalize cannabis next?
Originally published in Issue 38 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE