Today, the churches fulfilled their promise to deliver more than the required number of signatures to the Governor General. These signatures come from thousands of Belizeans, who want to participate in a referendum on the legalization of marijuana. Dale McDougall has the following report.

Bishop Alvin Benguche, Senator: “For us at this time, we have decided to present these petitions because we believe this is a backward and retrograde step taken in the name of the ‘new growth industry’.

Dale McDougall, Love FM News: This is essentially the main theme of the campaign led by religious leaders in Belize to trigger a referendum on the legalization of hemp and marijuana in Belize. On Tuesday, these religious leaders from the Methodist, Catholic, Anglican and Evangelical churches delivered more than 21,000 petitions signed by Belizeans across the country to Governor General Froyla Tzalam. The churches argue that these Belizeans are insisting that the government hold a referendum on this important issue. Senator A. Moses Benguche, Bishop of the Methodist Church of Belize, told Belize House that a wide range of Belizeans hope the government will reconsider its position.

Bishop Alvin Benguche, Senator: “The signatures represent the voice of the Belizean public. It includes a former prime minister. It includes bankers, CEOs of different companies across the length and breadth of this nation. It represents people from all walks of life, Rastafarians and community leaders. He tells us here and now that although this petition for the referendum was first proposed by the church, it is no longer just the church that is calling for a referendum but it is the whole country of Belize.

Dale McDougall, Love FM News: One of the staunchest supporters of the referendum is Pastor Louis Wade. Not only is he confident that the signatures can stand up to scrutiny in the verification process, but overall people’s voices need to be heard.

Pastor Louis Wade, NEAB member:We believe we live in an open society. The government must prove that by respecting the rules of the Referendum Act, by validating these signatures because they come from the Church and that we begin to have a problem in the sense that the question of knowing if there is whether or not there was consultation needs to be addressed because the church makes it clear that there was no formal consultation.

Dale McDougall, Love FM News: Wade also argues that the call for meaningful consultations must include families living in rural areas where he says the drug has had a largely negative impact.

Pastor Louis Wade, NEAB member: “Belize is a country of both urban and rural communities, villages that have been integrated for a thousand years, for hundreds of years that are now torn apart by this marijuana problem and a don that has now come to live in their community and has taken their youngsters, as their, either as their customers or as their gangsters.So Belize is not just the south side.Belize is a multiplicity of communities across this country.

Journalist: 65%

Pastor Louis Wade, NEAB member: “Yes, 65% are rural so we’re saying the marijuana problem is a paper tiger and Belizeans, even many who are addicted to weed themselves.”

Dale McDougall, Love FM News:The Bar Association’s 17-page document does not state its position one way or the other, but it does suggest that “a referendum does not legally bind the government to its outcome, so the government can still pass the bill legalizing the production and sale of marijuana even though the majority votes against it in a referendum. Indeed, the results of the referendum must advise the government but cannot bind the legislators. He adds that “the courts have found that the penalty, if any, for a government that does not respect the results of a referendum is political.” Indeed, but for the moment, the Department of Elections and Boundaries will have to go through these signatures. In a brief statement today, the government said it would lead the process, describing the day as inspiring and encouraging for democracy. It is a system which, however, insists that churches must remain open. Dale McDougal, Love News.

As churches take their victory lap delivering what they say are more than enough valid signatures to trigger the referendum, the law calls for people 21 and older to get a cannabis ID card to have the substance for personal use. This ID will cost fifty dollars for locals and $100 for tourists. However, the churches say that even with these provisions, there will be slippages. More than that, Church Senator Moses Benguche says this is a new industry that Belize simply doesn’t need.

Bishop Alvin Benguche, Senator: “Yes currently, as it is in the bill, there is an age limit. But, you and I know that we live in a country that, in a sense, is very porous. We allow our children, our minor children, to go out and buy whatever we want them to buy and it is a fact that from the time you are a child you can be sent anywhere to buy what it is for the adult and so although we have those mechanisms in place, I still ask about the policing aspect. And so for us as a church, we’ve done our part and will continue to do our part in educating the public about some of these things. But we also need to let the public know about some of the dynamics that are in place, the gaps that are in place and we as a church need to talk about those gaps as well.