This month Puerto Rico’s Governor signed a bill that legalizes and regulates medical marijuana. Three cheers for Puerto Rico? Maybe just the one at the moment, as this territory still needs to iron out some serious creases in its legal system when it comes to cannabis. There are, of course, perhaps more pressing concerns at the moment, what with the aftermath of the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria still being dealt with.
John Oliver’s refrain of “That doesn’t apply in Puerto Rico” on his ‘Puerto Rico’ episode of Last Week Tonight will probably be etched in the annals of the unincorporated territory’s history. As Oliver’s interesting video shows, a 1901 U.S. Supreme Court case declared Puerto Rico a “territory” rather than a state. This gave the island certain loopholes in the U.S. law that wouldn’t be available in mainland U.S. These loopholes have lead to a series of lax business regulations leaving Puerto Rico’s economy in a rocky condition.
Is MMJ Puerto Rico’s knight in shining armour?
Perhaps. Medical marijuana may help Puerto Rico’s economy, but it won’t put much of a dent into their debt as a whole. Though it’d be nice to think that marijuana will come and save Puerto Rico’s day, this is not realistic. Approximately 3.5 million people live in Puerto Rico (a figure that’s declining), with 45% living in poverty and an unemployment rate of around 12%.
Consider that California has a population of nearly 40 million, where the recreational marijuana industry is projected to make the state $1 billion, on an industry that’s worth an estimated $7 – $8 billion. Moreover, Puerto Rico only has legalized medical marijuana, not recreational marijuana. There are only around 4,000 people (sorry – link in Spanish) registered to Puerto Rico’s medical marijuana programme, with another 7,000 awaiting their applications to be processed. Even if all prospective 100,000 people from the patient pool who could benefit from medical marijuana were to become eligible tomorrow, this would not make any massive dent on Puerto Rico’s outstanding debt.
Another concern that’s probably come to light more in recent weeks is just how isolated Puerto Rico is in some ways. Getting things to and from an island that is somewhat regularly plagued by natural disasters is difficult, even at the best of times. Broken supply chains are not uncommon when it comes to Puerto Rico. At the moment, even electricity is hard to come by. This is especially damaging when we look at the fact that Puerto Rico relies so much on tourism and exporting goods to the US (and to a lesser extent, Holland, the UK and other islands around the region).
However, there must be some way cannabis could help fix Puerto Rico’s ailing economy? Well, here are a few (specifically five) ways it could …
Legalizing Recreational Use
Even if recreational marijuana use were legalized in Puerto Rico tomorrow and every person on the island started using it, it still wouldn’t make a huge impact on the debt. Yet, it would definitely help at least a little, and the sunny shores of Puerto Rico combined with legal cannabis would certainly attract the “marijuana tourism” dollar. Puerto Rico could also implement Nevada-like reciprocity laws in order to make the place attractive to the medical marijuana market as well.
Along with the cheaper cost of living and the lovely weather, it isn’t hard to see Puerto Rico becoming the destination for a relaxing weed holiday, probably beating out California, Colorado and Oregon by quite some distance. This is America without the American prices, after all, and canna-enthusiasts the world over would go to a place like Puerto Rico in a heartbeat! The fact that the island is close to other popular destinations like the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas would make it an even more attractive stop-over.
Current sentencing for those without a medical marijuana card in Puerto Rico is 5 years for nominal possession and up to 10 for possession near recreational areas like parks and schools. This clearly needs to be changed.
Ring Fencing the Spending
Hospitals and schools are closing at alarming rates in Puerto Rico. This is exacerbated by the fact that servicing Puerto Rico’s debt is put over the funding of public services – services that make life possible in Puerto Rico in the first instance, and the lack of which could cause Puerto Rico to enter a Greece-like debt spiral. It is imperative that Puerto Rico is able to ring fence and use the money from an industry like cannabis to help fund basic infrastructure. This would be following the lead of other states like Colorado, Washington and California, who have also decided to ring fence the marijuana tax money for public services.
Research and “Puerto Rico: the Schrödinger’s Cat State”
Puerto Rico has long attracted the pharmaceutical industry, so moving onto the scientific research of cannabis would seem the perfect fit. Seeing as so many strange business transactions are acceptable in Puerto Rico, where federal laws that apply in the U.S. don’t apply here, why not expand these rules to Puerto Rico? In other words, “Cannabis is illegal in the United States, but not in Puerto Rico, which both is and isn’t part of the United States.” Puerto Rico, much like California, could become a “Sanctuary State”.
Yes, it looks like Puerto Rico is the literal Schrödinger’s cat of the world! We should ideally be using this for cutting-edge scientific research that’ll compete and beat the likes of Israel’s medical marijuana research, not dodgy financial chicanery! (We can dream, right?) Of course, it’d have to be a different arrangement from the one given to pharmaceutical companies in the past – you can’t raise tax money if you don’t collect it!
Could Legalizing Cannabis Help Fight Drug Trafficking in Puerto Rico?
We have seen that legalizing marijuana has had an impact upon the Mexican drug cartels’ bottom line (i.e. it decreased it). Puerto Rico is also a major smuggling point, mainly as it’s an island and therefore has many points of entry. On top of this, Puerto Rico is next to many places in South and Central America and the Caribbean – all major points of drug production and trafficking. The drug trade is also intimately connected with police corruption in Puerto Rico.
Taking cannabis out of the hands of the cartels that operate in Puerto Rico will save money on law enforcement, as well as being a major source of revenue for the public as well. To add to the benefits, marijuana could quite easily grow naturally in Puerto Rico, giving the locals skills and an income, as well as a route out of the hard drugs (mostly cocaine) trade. Hopefully, legalizing marijuana will also take a chunk of cash out of the wallets of corrupt police officers as well. A safer Puerto Rico with decent public services means an investable Puerto Rico.
The Other Benefits
When people think of the marijuana industry, they think of cafes, dispensaries, growers and distributors. They tend to forget the other big areas that marijuana legalization can bring jobs in: advertising & marketing, the aforementioned scientific research, and a natural resource that can be traded on in terms of stocks and shares.
This isn’t really new news, as Puerto Rico’s debt crisis has been known about for quite some time. However, it’s all coming into focus now, as Puerto Rico has declared a bankruptcy of sorts this year.
There is, of course, lots more for Puerto Rico to do to beat its debt, especially in the world of marijuana. As it currently stands patients are limited to a 30-day supply of cannabis, and only non-smokable preparations are allowed. The amount given is determined by the physician. Home cultivation is not allowed, and the first dispensaries only just opened up at the beginning of January 2017. The territory should seriously consider making recreational and medical marijuana fully legal and giving people the right to grow their own, in order to see a real impact from MMJ on its economy.