The COVID-19 pandemic “has created challenges, impacting on several important timetable-changing issues” related to the medicinal cannabis industry in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), Minister of Agriculture Saboto Caesar tells parliament.

“This, quite naturally, will have an impact across the entire sector. Impacted, of course, are all traditional cultivators,” he said while responding to a question from opposition lawmaker Roland “Patel” Matthews, MP for North Leeward, to ask how many licensed farmers, inclusive of non-traditional farmers, are there who suffered tremendous loss due to the pandemic.

Matthews also asked the minister to say how many licensed farmers have legitimate contracts signed by potential investors for cultivating medical marijuana; and whether the government intended to give financial support to cannabis cultivators as a result of the setbacks caused by the pandemic.

Caesar said that a most recent review had shown that the prediction of a negative deep-seated impact may not be in the ranges forecast.

“Therefore, it may still be early days to conclude on the true impact of the pandemic. In fact, some marketers have indicated that during the early months of the pandemic, there was an increase in the demand for medicinal cannabis to address issues of anxiety and the like.”

Regarding the number of licensed farmers who have legitimate contracts signed by potential investors for cultivating medicinal cannabis, the minister said that the Medicinal Cannabis Authority is aware of formal engagements with three groups of traditional cultivators in the aggregate of approximately 150 farmers.

“Further, I have in my possession 17 copies indicating engagements of individual traditional and non-traditional cultivators of cannabis to participate by way of joint ventures with foreign direct investors,” he said.

But at the end of the minister’s response, Matthews pointed out that he had asked

specifically about the number of “legitimate contracts” signed by the investors and cultivators.

“And my reason for asking that part of the question is because unless there is some change in the amendment, we knew in the discussion that in order for a farmer to get a license, they must have a buyer.

“And I have heard the minister lamenting the fact about how many cultivators — not today but before — so this question was to bring to the fore how many cultivators have contracts with investors? Because in order to get a license, you must have a contract of sale — somebody to buy cannabis. So would the minister give some clarification on that?

Caesar told Parliament he had with him “the 17 copies of the contractor engagements”.

“So that’s 17 copies with 17 different names. And as I noted earlier, that there is the engagement with three groups of traditional cultivators and within the group, you have 150 farmers within the groups.”

Caesar said he had with him a memorandum of undertaking between a group of traditional cultivators and a foreign investor.

He further said the COVID-19 / Drought 2020 support is available to all registered farmers.

“That is farmers with farmers IDs. There are many traditional cultivators who are also doing formal agriculture, who have already registered and received a farmer’s ID from the Ministry of Agriculture.

“And many persons who are traditional cultivators who also do formal agriculture also have a farmer’s ID issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and have already gone to register themselves for support,” he said.

The agriculture minister said that if a traditional cannabis cultivator has registered and has a license, which triggers the issuance of a card by the medicinal cannabis authority; this is evidence that the individual farmer is a legitimate farmer and will be covered by the financial support mechanism currently established.

Caesar said the medicinal cannabis industry in SVG is facing some “major challenges” but continues to show “great resilience” amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some of the major challenges — unforeseen disruptions in the movement of personnel, whether it is technical or administrative. Several companies had their senior technicians and sometimes, persons who are very high in the administrative apparatus overseas when their borders were closed, and some borders [are] actually still closed,” he told lawmakers during the last meeting of the national assembly.

Caesar said other challenges are “the realignment of business plans and strategy in light of implications of the coronavirus” and “disruptions in shipping, causing some material for infrastructural development to be delayed.

“It is extremely encouraging that in such an uncertain period globally, we have seen the largest capital investment and expansion in the industry by way of foreign direct investment in the area of infrastructural on-farm development in the cannabis industry in St. Vincent and Grenadines.”

On the side of the public sector investment he said are achievements by the Medicinal Cannabis Authority over the past two months re an expression of confidence in the sector.

The agriculture minister said that the analytical lab is 97% completed and is set to be fully operationalised before year-end.

The leading Canadian seed-to-sale operator Ample Organics, essential for the traceability of the entire supply chain and prevention against diversion, is fully engaged, Caesar said.

He told Parliament that the Medicinal Cannabis Authority has three and almost 100 technicians in the field of medicine to address issues of the dispensing of cannabis and cannabis usage for patient access.

“I am advised that the first licensed medicinal cannabis company which has applied for permission from the pharmacy council, has obtained approval and is now completing the last stage of its dispensing license application,” Caesar said.

“I have a list of 33 full time employees which the company’s already established and infrastructure work in the industry has provided income for over 150 persons while in actual cannabis cultivation, there are 53 persons gainfully employed across licenses.”