By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Free National Movement’s (FNM) chairman says the Government has delayed the “potential gold mine” of industrial hemp to focus on legalising a medical marijuana industry that is “unlikely to be a big economic boon”.
Dr Duane Sands told Tribune Business that “many ships have already sailed” when it comes to medical marijuana, and The Bahamas does not have the advantage of “being an early adopter” through the legislative reform package unveiled by the Davis administration last week.
Arguing that it will not be a major medical tourism driver, given that many such visitors can access the required marijuana derivatives far more cheaply and easily in their home jurisdictions, he added that industrial hemp production remains “the big game changer” for The Bahamas given the variety of goods than can be produced and the amount of land required for crop cultivation and growing.
Dr Sands, a former minister of health, told this newspaper that if properly “scaled up” industrial hemp could provide multiple new job opportunities for Bahamians and “get the Family Islands into some new economic activity”. The Government, though, has opted to focus on medical marijuana, and use for scientific and religious purposes, but not industrial hemp which may be legalised at a later date.
Acknowledging that he has “only perused” the proposed legislative reforms unveiled by the Davis administration, the FNM chair said: “I think it’s a pretty conservative start. I suspect that the hype will exceed the actual impact because, while it does move the goal posts a little bit, I’m not so sure it’s going to have the level of impact that people think it will.
“There will certainly be utility, or use, for it but I don’t think it’s going to have a huge impact or huge market in The Bahamas.” Dr Sands said much depends on the level of competition The Bahamas faces from other countries that have legalised marijuana for medical use, pointing out that many Western Hemisphere rivals have the advantage of several years’ head start.
Noting that the National Commission on Marijuana began its research when he was minister, submitting its final report in August 2021, he explained: “It really depends on what the rest of the world and rest of the region is doing. I think many ships have sailed. We are not an early adopter; we are a couple of years later to the market, so there are many other countries that have already opened up to medical marijuana.
“I don’t see this as being a huge draw to The Bahamas to get medical marijuana. I don’t think it’s going to be a big boon for medical tourism, let’s put it that way. It’s a step. I think they’ve [the Davis administration] gone back to the drawing board and come out with a legislative platform that moves things forward a little bit. The expunging of records for possession of small amounts is a good move.....
“Having read what they’ve released, congratulations, but I don’t think it’s a huge impact on what happens here if the market is simply medical marijuana for Bahamians. Why travel from a place that already has medical marijuana to come to The Bahamas? Let’s see what happens, but certainly I don’t think it’s going to have a whole lot of impact on what happens certainly in our economy.”
Dr Sands, though, was more enthusiastic about the potential for industrial hemp, which can be employed to produce a variety of products ranging from clothing and hardware to ropes and other building materials. “That is where the gold mine could be,” he told Tribune Business. “We have significant amounts of arable land that could possibly be used to grow hemp.
“I think there’s some exciting possibilities there. Eleuthera, there’s land at Hatchet Bay and elsewhere. Long Island. I think a number of Family Islands could possibly be revitalised if they have scaled-up projects to grow hemp and use it for the production of construction materials and durable goods. That, I think, is the more exciting opportunity.
“I think hemp would do a lot to resuscitate the economy, provide a number of new jobs opportunities, get the Family Islands into some new economic activity and be a game changer.” Dr Sands’ views, though, were contradicted by the National Commission on Marijuana, which recommended in its August 2021 report that The Bahamas focus on medical marijuana - as the Davis administration has done - as opposed to industrial hemp.
While the “potential exists for a sustainable industry” for both medical marijuana and industrial hemp in The Bahamas, and with both needing to be explored, given that studies have shown plants for both cannot co-exist separate islands and regions of The Bahamas will have to be “zoned” for one type or the other as they cannot cross-pollinate.
“Cannabis for the hemp industry would require a different strain or species of the plant,” the Commission said. “The plant used for industrial hemp is traditionally high in CBD. There are many uses for hemp-based products in the general population, from hempcrete (a construction material) to clothing and hardware such as ropes and other building materials.
“Looking at the global trends, however, it is not expected that there will be an explosion of products into the industrial hemp market. This is because the prohibition on industrial hemp has been lifted for much of the world. Hemp clothing is available, but not in large quantities. The same applies for other hardware hemp that can be and is being produced.
“What is observed is an explosion in the health and recreational uses of hemp-derived CBD and products. Products range from every aspect of the consumer experience: Smokable products, as well as edible, topical and pet wellness products,” it added.
“The absence of explosion of the hemp industry compared to the production of cannabis products for human consumption may be attributed to the initial start-up costs for production of the hemp products, coupled with a low market demand. This, therefore, does not make production a priority for businesses operating in this space. On the other hand, the costs to set up operations designed to cultivate and extract for human consumption are far more cost effective with a much higher return on investment.”
Dr Sands, though, told Tribune Business that The Bahamas needs to “identify new products and industries” rather than seek to “squeeze blood out of a rock” amid signs the Government is going to miss its VAT revenue target for the recently-closed 2022-2023 fiscal year.
“Although it would take some time to ramp up, I think if you’re looking for new frontiers and new economic opportunities, we could bring this online in a couple of years,” he added of industrial hemp. “It’s a pity they have not seized on that opportunity. That could be an economic game changer.
“I think this issue of medical marijuana is more an effort to change the public narrative. You’re going to enjoy this, like this because it’s popular. That ship has sailed. The unbridled enthusiasm for cannabis has been watered down a little bit. The initial ‘damn the torpedos, full speed ahead, let’s do this has been tempered by real world experience. Yes, there’s been some profits, but challenges and lessons learned etc.
“Whereas two to three years ago everyone was talking about cannabis, that conversation has finished. People are still finding ways to make it commercially successful, but it’s not been a gold rush.”