In Belize, a Central American country of about 412,000 people, recreational cannabis reform is on the brink of happening—but with one small wrinkle. Today is the day the Cannabis and Industrial Hemp Control and Licensing Act is due to enter into force.
The only problem? Fierce opposition from the National Evangelical Association, the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches and the Belize Council of Churches. They all oppose the bill and want to hold a referendum to block the measure from being implemented.
This means that about 20,000 people must sign a church-backed and sponsored petition to that effect—or 10% of registered voters—by the end of the day.
It is not clear that this effort will succeed. As of a week ago, the referendum still was 4,000 signatures short. However, it was also about a week ago that the United Democratic Party (UDP), or main political opposition, and the National Trade Union Congress also issued statements backing the call for a referendum, although these groups have not specified what exactly should be on the referendum itself. This support also occurred rather suddenly despite the fact that the leader of the UDP, Moses “Shyne” Barrow has previously voiced support for cannabis legalization—even supporting a Constitutional Amendment for the same. For this reason, it looks like political opposition is based on opportunism and nothing else.
Such moves come after the democratically elected prime minister, John Briceño, has been promising cannabis reform for the last four years. The House of Representatives passed an amendment decriminalizing personal possession of up to 10 grams in 2017.
Since then, the bill to regulate the industry moved through the legislative process, passing both the House of Representatives and the Senate. However as soon as it did, the church groups then called for a referendum to oppose the final enactment of the law.
This stance has also been met with frustration from lawmakers who have repeatedly included provisions in the legislation that the church groups had called for—including providing funds for extra policing, cannabis education, and a taxation regime.
If the Church does not reach its goal of obtaining enough signatures, the bill will become law—making the country the first in Central America to implement full recreational reform. Licensed shops will legally be able to sell cannabis, although consumers will first have to obtain a “cannabis card” to shop in them.
The History of Cannabis Reform in Belize
Until the early 1980s, Belize was the fourth largest exporter of illicit cannabis to the U.S., behind Columbia, Mexico, and Jamaica. However, Drug War efforts almost eliminated the export of illicit cannabis here by the mid-1990s. That did not stop cultivation for personal use. Indeed, according to a 2016 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, almost 8.5% of Belizeans use cannabis, making the country the 18th highest in the world in terms of personal use—even ahead of Holland and Jamaica.
The current campaign to undermine forward progress has mostly been supported by the evangelical groups here. Interestingly, while individual Catholic priests like Father John Robinson, have opposed cannabis reform initiatives, calling legalization akin to illicit cultivation and trafficking, the Catholic church as an institution has not been as vocal in opposing the legalization legislation although the Pope has repeatedly expressed his opposition to recreational cannabis use.
So far, the religious opposition has drawn from data and studies that have been widely discredited when the moral argument fails—including from the United States.
Tourism and Agriculture Verticals Will Benefit from Legalization
Tourism and agriculture are the main sources of income and employment. These sectors employ roughly 40% of the population. The per capita income here is about $5,000.
Belize has the smallest economy in Central America and is currently suffering from a large trade deficit which amounts to about 23% of GDP. Its agricultural sector is also vulnerable to climate change, its manufacturing sector is underdeveloped, and both low educational opportunities combined with high unemployment have spurred criminal activities in the country.
It is clear that developing the legitimate cannabis industry here will help with all of that—which is one of the reasons that stiff opposition from evangelical groups and the political opportunism of the political opposition is so disturbing.
Marguerite Arnold is a veteran cannabis industry journalist, covering the market from Germany since 2013. Her second book, Green II: Spreading Like Kudzu, about the inside story of the first German cannabis cultivation bid, is on sale now in English and German.