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Churches’ call for referendum gains steam

HeadlineChurches’ call for referendum gains steam

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Apr. 7, 2022– On the heels of the passing of the Cannabis and Industrial Hemp Control and Licensing Bill in the Senate last Wednesday, the National Evangelical Association of Belize (NEAB), the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches (BAEC), and the Belize Council of Churches have intensified their public opposition to it and have increased their calls for the Belize government to conduct a referendum before completing the process through which the use, cultivation and sale of marijuana would be legalized in the country.

This week the United Democratic Party and the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) issued public statements backing the call for a referendum, though none of those parties have yet indicated what specific question would be asked of the public in the proposed plebiscite.

“In the name of Democracy, let the people decide in a referendum,” states a press release issued by the United Democratic Party, which also notes that one of the party’s guiding principles is to “heed the will of the majority of citizens” that it has sworn to serve.

The Leader of the Opposition and newly elected UDP leader, Hon. Moses “Shyne” Barrow, has previously voiced his support for the push to legalize marijuana.

In January of 2021, Hon. Barrow wrote a statement to local media in which he indicated that he would support an amendment to the Constitution for legalization of marijuana, citing the fact that, in December 2020 the then President-elect of the United States had gone on record in support of the federal legalization of cannabis.

“Legislation to legalize marijuana is long overdue in Belize and would reverse the failed policy of criminalizing marijuana which would take steps to address the heavy toll this policy has taken, particularly on poor communities,” he had stated.

It is to be noted that last Friday, April 1, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to end the federal ban on marijuana.

Belize had, under a UDP administration, decriminalized possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana via a bill passed by the National Assembly on October 20, 2017, and that bill was signed into law by the then Governor General, Sir Colville Young, on November 3, 2017.

At that time the leadership of the NEAB had hosted a press conference to complain that the Government had passed that law too fast, without carefully considering their objections.

The Cannabis and Industrial Hemp Control and Licensing Bill that was passed last Wednesday, like the previous decriminalization bill, received bi-partisan support in both houses of parliament, but the social senators, particularly the church and labor senators, strongly voiced concerns and called for more time for further consideration of their concerns and objections.

Hon. Eamon Courtenay, the Leader of Government Business in the Senate, told the chamber before calling for the vote: “It is this Senate, the social partners, the senators, who objected to the format of the previous bill. We changed that. They objected to the new composition set out in the bill. We changed that. They objected to the discretion of the minister to remove. We changed that. They requested money be indexed. We put that in. They wanted money for education. We put that in. They wanted money for policing administration of the bill that is in there. We introduced a taxation on it. All of that and more. Not around the residency of residential areas or schools. We put that in, and yet we are here being told that we’re hearing and not listening. Madam President, I don’t worry about it. I don’t operate like that.”

After the vote, Courtenay said he would ask that the signing of the bill into law by Governor General Dame Froyla Tzalam be delayed by a month to address any further concerns.

Those expressions of concern are coming from various quarters. This week, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) was another entity which came forward to express its support of the NEAB, BEAC and the Council of Churches’ call for a referendum, and, like the United Democratic Party, it cited the upholding of democracy as its motivation.

“The National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) is calling upon the Government of Belize to immediately stop the commencement of the proposed cannabis legislation,” stated its press release.

The NTUCB then went on to demand that the Government of Belize conduct “countrywide consultations to sensitize and listen to the positions of Stakeholders, Social Partners, and the wider public,” in addition to holding a referendum.

The dissenting secular organizations have not indicated whether they will join the religious groups’ logistical effort to gather the almost 20,000 signatures needed to trigger a referendum. Hon. Kareem Musa, the bill’s sponsor and the Minister of New Growth Industries, has stated that he regards further delay and a referendum as a massive waste of taxpayers’ money.

He stated in an interview on one local television station: “It is the taxpayers of the country that will actually have to pay, and it’s in the millions of dollars; let’s be real. So, you have 2 mass political parties that are supporting a particular bill, we already know mobilizes voters when it comes to a referendum, so you imagine you have the PUP and the UDP mobilizing constituents for a yes vote and so we kind of already know what the outcome of the vote will be, so I believe it will truly be a waste of resources unnecessarily …”

Reliable reports are that Hon. Shyne Barrow was only joined by two other members of the caucus of interim constituency caretakers (31) and members of the Central Executive Committee (20) who met and considered the call for a referendum. Reportedly those were Giovanni Alamilla (Pickstock) and Edmond “Clear The Land” Castro (Belize Rural North), who is a Rastafarian.

It is reported that the overwhelming majority of the delegates at the NTUCB caucus supported the call for a referendum on the issue of the legalization of marijuana in Belize.

The referendum proponents face the end of the month as a deadline to gather and submit their signatures and petitions for verification to the Governor-General.

As of January 31, 2022, Belize had a total of 186,893 registered voters, and the valid signatures of 10% of those voters would be needed to trigger a referendum.

The Referendum Amendment Bill was passed as part of the Belize Constitutional Sixth Amendment Bill on August 22, 2008, and survived challenges all the way to the Privy Council, whose judgement in March 2010 ensured it became the law of the land.

In August of 2008, the Barrow administration had introduced the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution in the House of Representatives and the package of amendments was tied up in the courts for 20 months. One of the most compelling of the multiple legal challenges ironically was the question of whether the government was obligated to hold a referendum before passing some of those amendments because they altered the fundamental rights granted to citizens under the Constitution.

The Supreme Court of Belize and the Belize Court of Appeal found that a referendum should have been held, though it was unclear at what stage, but a dissatisfied Barrow administration successfully appealed to the Privy Council.

In October 2011, the courts found that the Government of Belize was under no obligation to hold a referendum on the Belize Eighth Constitutional Amendment, despite the petitioners having gathered 20,000 signatures.

In February 2012, the Governor General disallowed enough signatures to thwart Oceana’s attempt to trigger a referendum on offshore oil exploration. In December 2013, the Elections and Boundaries Commission rejected a petition by the PUP to trigger a referendum for the recall of then Cayo Northeast area representative Elvin Penner because the petition lacked 300 more valid signatures.

The NEAB, BEAC, The Council of Churches, the NTUCB and the UDP must hope that despite the record of failure of all prior attempts, this time their attempt will be the charm.

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