Belize to hold referendum on legalisation of marijuana
In this April 15, 2019 file photo, a vendor makes change for a marijuana customer at a cannabis marketplace in Los Angeles, United States. (Photo: AP)

BELMOPAN, Belize (CMC) — The Belize Government has labelled it a “good and wonderful day for democracy” after the churches here met the threshold for triggering a referendum on the issue of cannabis legalisation in Belize that could take place in September this year.

Under the Referendum Act, a referendum may be triggered when a petition receives the signatures of 10 per cent of the voting population.

The Belize Evangelical Association of Churches (NEAB), as well as the Council of Churches had been undertaking the effort to trigger a people’s referendum.

“The people of Belize should be given a voice in such a radical shift in the moral fabric of our society. And it should be the people of Belize to decide on turning an illegal drug over to a legal ‘commodity’ with horrendous ramifications for the future of our nation,” NEAB had said in a statement on April 5.

In March, Roman Catholic priest, Father John Robinson issued a pre-recorded statement warning that legalisation of the cultivation, use and sale of marijuana is akin to “clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs”.

He predicted that passage of the legislation will “negatively affect Belize in the near future” and that “this Bill would legalise the growth, production, distribution, and sale of marijuana throughout the entire country of Belize”.

Chief Elections Officer Josephine Tamai said the threshold to trigger the referendum has been met

“I can tell you that in terms of the number of petitions that we received, the total was 20,112 petitions. Of those petitions, a total of 18,891 or 19.7 per cent of the total number of registered electors, were accepted. So 18,891 signatures were accepted,” said Tamai.

She said as a result, she has written to Governor General Froyla Tzalam informing the head of state that the threshold has been met successfully.

“I certified to the governor general that the verification of the signatures of the petitioners have been duly signed by at least 10 per cent of the registered electors in the entire country. At the time of presentation of those signatures the total number of registered electors stood at 187,527 registered electors. Therefore, 10 per cent of that number amounted to 18,753,” reasoned Tamai.

While a date for the cannabis referendum is still pending, it is expected that a written order commanding the chief elections officer to hold an election of referendum will be issued by the Crown’s representative.

Meanwhile, Minister of New Growth Industries Kareem Musa has welcomed the move to stage a referendum on the marijuana issue.

“It’s a good and wonderful day to see our democracy and democratic processes at work — and in particular under the Referendum Act. As you know, any group of people, persons can come together, and so long as they can garner ten per cent of the voting population’s signatures, they can trigger a referendum on any particular issue.

“And so, I think it’s a good and wonderful day that they have actually been able to meet that threshold. I know it was a very onerous exercise that they had to undergo,” Musa said.

He said the process will go on to the second stage during which the governor general, within 30 days, is to issue a writ of referenda; and within 30 days thereafter there should be a referendum on this particular issue.

“I know that would take us somewhere closer to the date of September fourth. I believe that would be the final deadline, sixty days from now, all things considered,” Musa said.

The minister said that despite the Government having prepared and tabled legislation in Parliament about the Cannabis and Hemp Control Licensing Bill (2022) regarding the decriminalisation of marijuana, the objection from the churches and other stakeholders “is very good for our democracy”.

“It’s always important for us to have a say by the people, and in this particular instance, like I said, the people will have a say — despite the fact that a lot of people have said ‘Well this is a very costly venture; we should be spending our resources in more priority areas.’

“And also, I’ve heard the fact that they’re saying well what really changes after the referendum because, really and truly, the day after the referendum cannabis will still be legal in the country. And so I think there is a lot of misinformation out there in terms of what we are actually doing. It is actually creating an industry. It is, in my opinion, what the referendum will decide is whether we want to continue to be a consumer nation or an importer nation — as opposed to a producer nation,” Musa specified.

Musa said that the ministries of finance and public service will have to decide on a budget for the proposed referendum.

“None has been set as yet; I have heard figures tossed around. I think the ICJ [International Court of Justice] referendum cost the Government somewhere in the vicinity of $3 million.

“I’m hoping that we don’t spend even close to that, but that is something that certainly the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Public Service will have to come together to identify a budget for this particular referendum — and I would even advocate to use the opportunity to put other issues, other possibly controversial issues, on this referendum,” he added.

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