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Belize Close to Legalization, Evangelicals Want Anti-Reform Referendum

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. The Cannabis and Industrial Hemp Control and Licensing Act will be in force today.

Problem is? The Belize Council of Churches, the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches, and the National Evangelical Association all voice their opposition to the bill. All three oppose the bill, and they want to have a referendum in order to stop it 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.

This effort is unlikely to succeed. A week ago, there were still 4,000 votes for the referendum. Although the UDP, the main political opposition to the United Democratic Party, supported the request for a referendum about a week earlier, the National Trade Union Congress and the United Democratic Party (UDP) also made statements supporting the initiative. However, these organizations haven’t specified the content of the referendum. 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. This is why it appears that the political opposition seems to be based solely on opportunism.

Such moves come after the democratically elected prime minister, John Briceño, has been promising cannabis reform for the last four years. 2017 saw the House of Representatives pass an amendment to decriminalize personal possession of cannabis up to 10 grams. 

The bill to regulate this industry passed both the House of Representatives as well the Senate. The church groups called for a referendum in opposition to the final law’s enactment as soon as the bill passed.

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.

History of Cannabis Reforms in Belize

Belize, Mexico and Jamaica were the top three largest illicit cannabis exporters to America up until the 1980s. Drug War efforts nearly ended illicit cannabis exports to the United States in the late 1990s. However, this did not prevent cultivation of cannabis 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 evangelical churches have largely supported the current effort to impede forward progress. Although Father John Robinson, a Catholic priest, has opposed legalization initiatives for cannabis, calling them illicit cultivation and trafficking, it is notable that the Catholic church, as an institution, has not voiced opposition to the legislation, even though the Pope repeatedly stated his disapproval of recreational marijuana 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.

Legalization Will Be a Benefit to Tourism and Agribusiness Verticals

The main income sources and jobs are in tourism and agriculture. About 40% of the country’s population works in these sectors. This area has a per capita income of approximately $5,000 

Belize’s economy is among the most small in Central America. It currently has an enormous trade deficit that amounts to around 23% of its GDP. The country’s agriculture sector is vulnerable to climate change. Its manufacturing sector is still underdeveloped. In addition, crime has been fueled by low education opportunities and high unemployment.

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.