Last Thursday, we showed you the comments from Pastor Louis Wade. He was giving an update on the push by a coalition of Churches to trigger a national referendum on Marijuana Legalization in Belize.
As viewers know, the Briceno Government's Cannabis and Industrial Hemp Control and Licensing Bill is simply awaiting assent from the Governor-General for it to become law. With a stroke of the GG's pen, a paradigm shift would occur where Belize would join other nations in the world that have decided to treat marijuana the same way as alcohol and cigarette smoking. However, the churches say that the government hasn't adequately polled the Belizean public to determine whether they want marijuana to become a legal substance that no longer attracts criminal penalties.
GOB hasn't made any moves to activate such a referendum process, and so the churches have decided that they will force the Government's hand using the Referendum Act. After several weeks of collecting signatures from Belizean voters, they formally submitted their petition to the Governor-General today. That happened in Belmopan, and our news team was there. Daniel Ortiz has that story:
This morning, the Churches showed up at the Belize House in Belmopan for a scheduled meeting with Governor-General Froyla Tzalam.
They had been claiming - for several days - to have the public support required to trigger a referendum. And finally, they handed over several boxes stuffed with signatures from petitioners who want a national referendum on the legalization of Marijuana in Belize.
In real-time, religious leaders, united across the denominational divide, are attempting to test one of the country's democratic processes on a divisive topic.
Bishop Alvin Moses Buguche - Church Senator
"We decided to present these petitions because we think that it is a backward and retrograde step being undertaken in the name of a new growth industry. We have to be presented close to 20,108 petitions, signed the petitions of the Governor-General of Belize. These signatures are all true and real. The signatures represent the voice of the Belizean public. It includes a former prime minister. It includes bankers, and CEOs, of different companies across the length and breadth of this nation. It represents people from every walk of life, Rastafarians, and community leaders. The Governor-General - and this is where I have come to respect the Governor-General even more. And I see that with all humility. Well, she spoke also in a direct way today to the petition and the referendum, she accepted the fact that we operate in an open democracy. And it is for her office to receive these petitions. She assured us. She assured us that certainly, this will be going on. Her office will take it to the next level."
The Churches say they have done the necessary research to ensure that the petition represents 10% of the registered voters.
Bishop Alvin Moses Buguche
"We have done every scrutiny - and I want to look in the camera and say this. We have done our scrutiny. We have had enough people vetting the petitions, cross- vetting the positions. And so, as far as we are concerned, having all those processes in place, we can be sure without a shadow of a doubt that those petitions can cross any border."
Pastor Louis Wade - Spokesperson
"We ensured that we surpassed the 10% threshold with validated signatures, you see. So, even if a person did not submit their voter I.D. card, but they said, 'I voted or I forgot to vote,' their petition was submitted and our responsibility was to ensure that we provided more than enough of the 10% trigger of validated. But every single signature is authentic and comes from a Belizean."
In anticipation of technicalities, they brought a few hundred extra signatures to substitute for any candidate the Elections officials choose to disqualify as a registered voter. They say that they would be surprised and disappointed to hear that the petitions didn't pass the scrutiny of the Elections and Boundaries Department.
Bishop Alvin Moses Buguche
"I would be very disappointed and I would be very disappointed because as I said, we have done our homework. We can be sure as a church that we have done our part."
The Churches continue to insist that their objective in this push is not necessarily to campaign for a "no" vote. They don't think it's good for marijuana products to become as accepted and "normal" as a bottle of rum or a pack of cigarettes at a corner store. They're willing, however, to live with the choice that Belizeans decide in a referendum:
"The church can't claim that those are 20,000 'no' votes. Those are Belizeans who believe in democracy and are saying, 'Let's have a referendum.' You may have 'no' votes in there, but you can't claim 20,000 as 'no' voters."
Bishop Alvin Moses Buguche
"The Church will respect whatever the result is. The church has never been afraid of bringing forward the referendum. Put it to the referendum, and the church will respect the will of the people. So we are not afraid as to whether it's a 'Yea' vote or it's a 'Nay' vote. We have never said that. What we have been consistent with is, put it to the referendum and the process of our democracy is, well, if you are shying away from putting in it to do the referendum, we will force you to put it to the referendum. And so, the existence of these petitions, because in a sense, it seems to me [that] we have to be forcing the hand of the government."
And after weeks of saying Cabinet would decide, not a referendum, in an afternoon press release, the Government sort of pivoted in favor of the Churches' referendum push.
Their press release says, quote, "signatures have been submitted to the Governor-General to commence the process of issuing a writ of referendumâ€¦ In accordance with the Referendum Act, the petition will now undergo the process of vetting and verification by the Elections and Boundaries Department.
The government commits to continue to shepherd the process with respect for all concerned with the deference and dignity of valuing all lawful and reasonable input.
This is an inspiring and encouraging day for the democratic system of opinions, as well as the weighing judgment of public consensus..."