Hamilton – The Bermuda government said it will push on with its flagship legislation to legalise the use and consumption of cannabis in this British overseas territory after Governor Rena Lalgie announced on Tuesday that she had been instructed by London not to give it the royal assent.
The ruling Progressive Labour Party (PLP) said it had been given a mandate by voters to introduce the legislation, having won landslide victories in general elections in 2017 and 2020.
Lalgie announced the decision following months of tension over the legislation on the day that Liz Truss was elevated from Foreign Secretary to Prime Minister in Britain following the resignation of Boris Johnson.
Attorney General Kathy Lynn Simmons, reacting to Tuesday’s statement from Government House, said the news was “disappointing, but not surprising given the confines of our constitutional relationship with the UK government and their archaic interpretation of the narcotic conventions”.
“The people of Bermuda have democratically expressed their desire for a regulated cannabis licensing regime, following the strong endorsement at the ballot box and an extensive public consultation process,” she said.
“The government of Bermuda intends to continue to advance this initiative, within the full scope of its constitutional powers, in keeping with our 2020 general election platform commitment.”
Premier David Burt, who may face a leadership challenge at the party’s convention in October, made no immediate comment, but he said last year that if the royal assent was not given to the Cannabis Licensing Bill, it will destroy relations between Bermuda and Britain.
The opposition One Bermuda Alliance (OBA) insisted for some time that the PLP knew the bill was not going to get royal assent and was hoping to use the issue as a wedge to push for independence.
But a high-ranking PLP source dismissed such claims, telling the Royal Gazette newspaper: “I do not believe it is a push for independence — we said we would push for cannabis legislation, and we did. If we were going to push for independence, we would.”
Lalgie reserved assent for the bill in May, after it had twice been defeated in the Senate, and called for dialogue between Hamilton and London on the matter.
Referring to her previous decision to reserve royal assent, the Governor stated: “I have now received an instruction, issued to me on Her Majesty’s behalf, not to assent to the bill as drafted.
“The Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs concluded that the bill, as currently drafted, is not consistent with obligations held by the UK and Bermuda under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances.
“I have informed the Premier and relayed the UK’s continued desire to work with Bermuda on reforms within the scope of our existing international obligations.”
Shadow Home Affairs Minister Scott Pearman said the legislation was “deeply flawed”.
“In April, the opposition was asked to comment on the likelihood of Premier Burt’s flagship cannabis bill becoming law,” he said.
“At that time, we said this: ‘Given the UK’s international convention obligations, there must be a high likelihood that the Governor will not grant royal assent – so this bill will not likely become law.”
Pearman added: “With the UK’s clear and existing obligations, we also asked at that time: Was it Premier Burt’s intention to have this bill fail from the start? The Governor has indeed confirmed that the PLP bill has been rejected.
“I would also respectfully remind the public that although this bill was one of Premier Burt’s flagship initiatives, almost half of his PLP MPs did not vote for the bill. The bill was also twice defeated in the Senate.”
Pearman said the Premier was acutely aware of the UK’s treaty obligations throughout.
“His own attorney-general pointed out the UK’s treaty obligations in parliament when the Bill was debated the first time in February 2021,” the Opposition legislator said.
“The premier then stated publicly in November 2021 that he had no intention of tailoring his bill to satisfy the UK’s conventions obligations, so it was David Burt’s choice to steam ahead as he did, rather than seek consensus and compromise.”
Ministers admitted last year that the PLP’s cannabis plans went beyond the limits of international conventions on drugs to which Britain had signed up, and the legislation was not in line with Britain’s obligations under the UN’s 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
The bill passed the House of Assembly, but 12 of the 30 PLP MPs did not vote for it, although some were overseas at the time.