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Marijuana on our minds
Dr Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, has described T&T Chief Justice Ivor Archie as being “on target” with his views on the decriminalisation of marijuana in small quantities and believes Caribbean people are ready for a change in the law.
At a meeting in Port-of-Spain on September 17 hosted by PM Kamla Persad-Bissessar which also included Haitian President Michael Martelly, Barbados leader Freundel Stuart and Caricom secretary general Irwin LaRoque, Gonsalves asked for the matter to be put down for discussion by Caricom.
In a telephone interview with the T&T Guardian, Gonsalves said medical marijuana was now an “irresistible” topic to discuss and suggested that as a senior political figure in the region, now in his 45th year in politics and serving his third consecutive term in office, it fell to figures like him to open up the debate.
“We should be talking honestly and openly, but we are not. It’s as though our minds are closed and some affliction has descended upon us preventing us from talking about it. Somebody needs to bell the cat, let the truth out. With my years I can be emphatic about it.”
Last week, several newspapers in the region, including the Jamaica Observer, published Gonsalves’ comments about marijuana for medical purposes, pointing to its usefulness in treating arthritis, asthma and glaucoma.
Last week he reiterated his view, saying, “High people in high places with arthritis boil ganja and drink it. They boil the root for asthma. An old lady I have known for many years who belonged to the Legion of Mary, as holy as the Pope—she used to drink it.
“It's not reinventing the wheel,” he went on to say. “Twenty states in the US have legalised it medically with no interference from the federal government.”
The system implemented by states such as California—where cards are issued by medical practitioners and patients can buy high-grade marijuana from licensed clinics—might be more difficult to implement in countries like T&T or St Vincent.
But Gonsalves argued that it should be manageable to implement the necessary adaptations to the region's legal and pharmaceutical systems.
More importantly, he said, Archie had taken the issue further by advocating decriminalisation of possession of small amounts for non-medical purposes also. Archie believes prosecuting individuals for minor non-violent offences, particularly weed possession, is breeding criminality and wasting vital police resources.
This is an opinion shared by a police inspector from the Western Division (who preferred to remain unnamed), when he spoke to the T&T Guardian in the wake of the police operation that led to a shootout and the death of a man in Diego Martin two weeks ago. Six hundred kilos of marijuana were recovered in that operation on the North Post Road. The inspector said one of his officers could have died in the shootout and the death of the suspect was a waste of life.
Gonsalves said, broadly speaking, the Caribbean region considers anything below 14 grams (half an ounce) of marijuana to be for personal use, while anything above that amount indicates intent to supply. The current system, he said, allowed arbitrary abuse by police, some of whom might charge a possessor for little amounts while other officers wouldn't.
Historically, he said, marijuana was permissible under the British in T&T when indentured Indian labourers smoked it. Marijuana, not an indigenous Caribbean plant, arrived from India during British colonial rule and thrived in the tropical conditions here. Much of the region’s supply comes from St Vincent, Jamaica and Colombia.
Asked whether it could constitute an important agricultural income for St Vincent, Gonsalves said of the 96,000 acres of land in his country, 33 per cent is forest and another 40 per cent built on. “That leaves about 20,000 acres of land available for cultivating anything. We need to find a niche. We've thought about cocoa and types of vegetables. We feel marijuana cultivation, like in California, would work.”
Bringing the conversation back to the human level, he ended by saying, “If you find a guy smoking a spliff behind his grandmother's house, is he doing anything to harm anybody, except perhaps himself? If you are in the bedroom with your wife and before or after making love you smoke a joint, should that be a criminal offence?”
It was, of course, a rhetorical question. His view is clear.
Writing on the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office Web site, UK High Commissioner to T&T Arthur Snell gave a brief but detailed explanation of the laws on marijuana in Britain and the policing methods used to enforce them. The key points were:
• In the UK, marijuana is a “Class B” drug, ie illegal.
• The maximum penalty for supplying or producing marijuana is 14 years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine
• The maximum penalty for possession is five years’ imprisonment.
• Imprisonment for possession of marijuana is very rare.
• When someone is caught for the first time with a small amount of cannabis for personal use the police have the option of using a “cannabis warning”: a spoken warning given by a police officer, either on the street or at the police station.
• On a subsequent occasion someone possessing cannabis may be issued with a Penalty Notice for Disorder (PND) and a spot fine of £80.
• Someone issued with a PND or a cannabis warning will not have this recorded on their criminal record.
• Andy Hayman, deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London, said of the policy: “People caught with small amounts of cannabis for personal use will not be arrested unless they are under age. You will be challenged, because to have possession of that drug is illegal. But the guidance [says] focus on class A [drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine].”
• In March 2012, the Economist declared, “Cannabis has in effect been decriminalised in Britain.”
• In April a group called London Cannabis Club organised a pro-legalisation rally at which hundreds were alleged to have smoked marijuana openly in Hyde Park, London.
• According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the proportion of people who admit to having used cannabis in Britain has fallen more quickly than in any other European country over the past few years.
• 6.8 per cent of UK adults said they had used cannabis in a 2010, survey, down from 10.9 per cent eight years earlier.
• The UK experience appears to be that reducing the penalties has also led to reducing the abuse.
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