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Are Banking Concerns Really Delaying Cannabis Reform In Belize?

Lawmakers in Belize previously passed the ‘Cannabis and Industrial Hemp Control and Licensing Bill 2022.’ The measure passed both chambers of Belize’s Parliament and was set to become law.

However, cannabis prohibitionists, particularly church leaders, were able to successfully stall the passage of the bill and divert it into Belize’s referendum process.

A vote was initially set for later this year on September 4th. That vote is now being delayed, with no future vote date set from what I can tell. The reasoning for the delay? ‘Concerns’ about banking. Per Caribbean National Weekly:

The Belize government has confirmed that concerns raised by the banking community have led to the Cannabis and Industrial Hemp Control and Licensing Bill 2022 being temporarily shelved despite going through all the states in Parliament.

Home Affairs and New Growth Industries Minister, Kareem Musa, was asked by reporters to comment on his reluctance to admit that banking sector concerns would present a roadblock to the bill.

“Cannabis legalization is taking place all across the Caribbean. Like the rest of the Caribbean, Belize always has correspondent banking concerns. As you recall with the offshore sector, we had to make certain regulations and adjustments to comply with the European Union so that we were not blacklisted.”

To many cannabis industry and policy observers around the globe, the excuse offered up for delaying the referendum vote seems to be a stretch. After all, many countries engage in the emerging legal cannabis industry, including nations in the European Union.

There seems to be a lot of rhetoric being tossed around on this topic, but not a lot of real-world examples of it actually happening. Hopefully cannabis reform can get back on track in Belize sooner rather than later.

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Church Leaders In Belize Put The Brakes On Cannabis Reform

In late March lawmakers in Belize passed ‘The Cannabis and Industrial Hemp Control and Licensing Bill 2022.’ The bill would, among other things, create a government registration and ID system in which people could sign up to participate in a national adult-use cannabis system. As Belize’s leading newspaper, Amandala, described the measure back in March upon its passage:

Yesterday, the Senate passed into law the Cannabis and Industrial Hemp Control and Licensing Bill of 2022, which, in conjunction with the recently amended version of the Misuse of Drugs Act, legalizes the recreational use, commercial production and sale of cannabis throughout the country of Belize. The laws legalize cannabis use for adults only and put in place a framework for the rollout of the industry in Belize, which is to be overseen by a Cannabis Control Commission.

The bill was set to become law, however, last week a group led by evangelical churches in Belize submitted signatures in an attempt to put the measure to a referendum vote.

Belize has a referendum system in which citizens can submit signatures to place something passed by lawmakers on the ballot so that citizens can vote on it. Various other jurisdictions around the world have similar systems.

Generally speaking, referendums can be good and have helped reform cannabis laws in some parts of the world. However, they can also be used to hinder cannabis policy efforts, which is what happened in Belize last week. Below is what a representative had to say regarding the referendum push in Belize, per Channel 5 Belize:

Bishop Moses Benguche, Church Senator

“The gathering of the church leaders assembled here today feels that is was important to be able to share and to bring these petitions to the Governor General at this time, because we are speaking in a direct way to what the government has done in presenting a bill on March twenty fifth, 2022, the Bill entitled Cannabis and Industrial Hemp Control and Licensing Bill. For us at this time, we decided to present these petition, because we think that it is a backward and retrograded step being undertaken in the name of New Growth Industry.”

Currently, only three countries have legalized cannabis for adult use at a national level – Canada, Uruguay, and Malta. Last I checked, the sky was still intact above all three of those countries, and any doomsday scenarios regarding legalization have yet to materialize.

From here, the Governor General’s Office in Belize will work with the Chief Elections Officer to validate the signatures. If there are not enough valid signatures, the referendum effort will essentially be over. However, if there are indeed enough valid signatures, the Chief Elections Officer will set a date for a vote.

Obviously, if the vote fails then presumably legalization will proceed. The group behind the referendum effort has indicated that they will respect the results of such a vote. However, if the referendum receives a majority of votes it is unclear how lawmakers will proceed.

The Bar Association of Belize recently issued a 17-page opinion that essentially states that the referendum vote will not be binding and that lawmakers can proceed regardless of the outcome. However, Belize’s Minister of Home Affairs doesn’t seem so sure, at least partially. Per Love FM:

Kareem Musa, Minister of Home Affairs: “What I can say is that I’ve seen that advice and I’ve also seen other advice coming from other attorneys practising in Belize and they differ and so I could see where there would be some possible legal challenge based on that but I see the Bar taking a particular position and I see other attorneys having another view on it. I think that that the churches have a genuine concern but at times, I do feel that they are detached from the actual on the ground reality of what it is that’s fueling murders, particularly in Belize City. Yes a lot of it results in retaliation but I think that they are out of touch with what is actually happening on the ground in Belize City and how much an industry like the cannabis industry can help places like Belize City. Instead of just looking at the bad, I think they should look at some of the economic benefits that will come to the various communities and understand, like I said, weed is not going anywhere.”

Cannabis reform in Belize has a lot of moving parts right now. Signatures need to be validated, if there are enough valid signatures then a vote needs to be held, and if the vote favors the referendum, then lawmakers will have a difficult choice to make. All we can do is wait to see how it all unfolds and hope for the best.

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Will Cannabis Reform Put Belize’s Banking System At Risk?

Banking laws and policies across the globe are hindering the growth of the emerging legal cannabis industry. The problem is not as much of a doomsday scenario as some industry observers may claim, however, it’s still an issue nonetheless.

It seems like every time that I post something on social media regarding cannabis banking, a digital food fight ensues. On one side, you have folks that act as if there is no problem at all, almost always pointing to the fact that their cannabis company has a bank account and therefore the problem doesn’t exist.

On the other side of the digital food fight, you have people that act as if it’s impossible to obtain a bank account if you are a cannabis company. As with many things cannabis industry-related, the truth is actually somewhere in between.

Yes, there are cannabis companies with bank accounts. More, in fact, than ever before. However, every one of them runs the risk of being shut down at any moment to some degree, and with little chance of successfully appealing the closure if/when it happens.

No cannabis company is guaranteed a banking account, no cannabis company is guaranteed that their account will stay open if they were able to obtain an account, and some cannabis companies will have their bank accounts in operation for many years with no issues. It differs from situation to situation.

Banking Concerns In Belize

In Belize, where cannabis reform is on the move, banking seems to be a particularly large concern in some circles. Whether it’s actual fear, or just the use of political scare tactics, people in Belize are expressing concern that the nation’s entire banking system could be at risk if cannabis companies are allowed to access it. Per Love FM:

One of the primary concerns echoed across the public sphere is that this new marijuana legislation will put the country’s banking system at risk. Former UDP Prime Minister Dean Barrow was the first who sounded the alarm.

Responding to the concerns was Home Affairs Minister Kareem Musa.

Kareem Musa, Minister of Home Affairs: “You want me to listen to the advice of a Prime Minister who did not create a single new industry for this country in 13 years and you want me to take his advice? What I’m telling you in terms of this banking, when it comes to the cannabis business, it is done in Jamaica. They had similar issues as we when it comes to offshore banking regulations and they had to comply and change their regulations and now they’re fine with correspondent banking.”

As the Minister of Home Affairs astutely touches on, if other countries can be home to legal cannabis industries that have access to banking, the same will prove to be true for Belize. This is not to say that there will be no issues, however, it’s not as if Belize’s entire banking system will crumble just because cannabis industry revenue starts to flow into it.

Issues In Other Countries

Minister Musa mentioned Jamaica in his response to the concerns from former PM Dean Barrow. Back in October 2019, Jamaica’s Trade Minister Audley Shaw indicated that cannabis prohibition in the United States, and more specifically, banking issues related to the U.S. prohibition policy, was getting in the way of his country’s cannabis industry pursuits.

“It’s really a roadblock, no other word for it, it’s a major roadblock in the advancement of medicinal cannabis,” Shaw stated at the time. “The gravity of this situation requires the highest level of focus.”

In 2017 Uruguay, which was the only national legal adult-use market on earth at the time, received letters from large banks in the United States that indicated that they would not do business with banks in Uruguay that worked with the cannabis industry.

Years later, cannabis companies in Uruguay and Jamaica are still in business, and both of the countries’ national banking systems are still intact.

However, both countries have experienced banking hiccups as they have worked to expand their cannabis industries, so it’s possible that Belize could experience something similar, although that is materially different from saying that Belize’s entire banking system is being put at risk.

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Belize Clergy Coalition Reportedly Preparing For Cannabis Referendum Effort

Religion and the cannabis plant have a complicated history. Many religions around the world incorporate the cannabis plant into their belief systems and have for centuries. It’s not a coincidence that many of the archeological discoveries regarding cannabis use occurred at sites where religious ceremonies were historically held.

Unfortunately, some religious organizations, particularly Evangelical Christian organizations, have served as a driving force for prohibition policies around the globe for many years. They would portray cannabis use as being ‘evil’ – even cannabis use that is for medical purposes.

I would never tell another person what religion to believe in, or for that matter, to have any religious belief at all. It’s an entirely personal decision. However, if someone claims to be a Christian then it logically follows that the person should adhere to the teachings of the deity that they profess to believe in, including and especially compassion. With that in mind, self-professed Christians should absolutely oppose cannabis prohibition given how inhumane of a public policy it is.

Members and leaders of all religions around the world should push for sensible cannabis policies, particularly Evangelical Christians given how much they have directly contributed to the harms of cannabis prohibition for so many years. Unfortunately, in Belize a coalition of Evangelical clergy is ramping up efforts to place a cannabis reform referendum measure before voters. Per Breaking Belize News:

Ѕоurсеѕ ѕау а соаlіtіоn іѕ bеіng fоrmеd tо рuѕh fоr а rеfеrеndum tо bе hеld “rеgаrdlеѕѕ оf thе раѕѕаgе оr thе ѕіgnіng іntо lаw оf thе lеgаlіzаtіоn оf mаrіјuаnа, bесаuѕе thе vоісе оf thе реорlе muѕt bе hеаrd оn thіѕ іѕѕuе.”

Ноwеvеr, wе undеrѕtаnd thаt thеrе іѕ nоthіng оffісіаl аѕ уеt оn thе tаblе frоm оnе оf thе mоѕt сrіtісаl орроnеntѕ tо thе nеw lеgіѕlаtіоn, thе Nаtіоnаl Еvаngеlісаl Аѕѕосіаtіоn оf Веlіzе (NЕАВ), ассоrdіng tо ѕоurсеѕ thеrе, аlthоugh thеу hаvе рublісlу саllеd fоr ѕuсh а rеfеrеndum.

Wе undеrѕtаnd thаt thе ѕuрроrt fоr ѕuсh а rеfеrеndum “іѕ оvеrwhеlmіng аnd bіраrtіѕаn;” mоrеоvеr, іt іѕ “hugе аnd ехраndіng [аnd] іnсludеѕ thоѕе whо ѕuрроrt lеgаlіzаtіоn whо ѕау thаt thе реорlе muѕt bе соnѕultеd.”

“Lаwуеrѕ аrе еnѕurіng thаt wе fоllоw thе асt; [thаt] whаt wе аrе dоіng іѕ ассоrdіng tо thе lаw,” ассоrdіng tо оur ѕоurсеѕ.

Only time will tell what happens in Belize, however, it’s a good sign that lawmakers appear to be moving forward with reform efforts despite not-so-surprising opposition from religious organizations.

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