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Monday, December 09, 2013
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At a signing ceremony between T&T and Guatemala last Tuesday, Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Dookeran endorsed the report on the drug problem in the Americas by the Organisation of the American States (OAS). Among the recommendations in the report, he said, was that “we should find ways and means to decriminalise the operation and the use of drugs.” The Sunday Guardian spoke to two criminal lawyers to understand the implications of Dookeran’s endorsement.
Former Independent Senator Dana Seetahal SC:
It is about time drug users in T&T are treated as victims rather than criminals, says former Independent Senator Dana Seetahal SC. Commenting on Dookeran’s call to decriminalise the use of certain drugs, Seetahal said she believed he referred to removing criminal charges for the simple possession of certain drugs, particularly marijuana.
Saying this is the most sensible way to deal with drug users, she said: “It serves no purpose to bring drug users before criminal court, over and over, and then send them to jail.” Seetahal said the issue of drug users was a social issue and needed to be treated that way. “The best way to deal with it is to allow the user to enter a drug rehabilitation programme which is monitored by the court. They would receive the appropriate treatment and reports would be sent back to court.”
Although decriminalisation was directed at certain drugs—in this case marijuana—Seetahal said the quantity of the drug and the individual’s history were also important factors to determine whether criminal charges should be laid. The quantity of the drug, she explained, would give an indication of whether it was a case of simple possession or trafficking.
She said the law shouldn’t deal lightly with those involved in trafficking, cultivating, and producing drugs. “These are people who make money off the drug addicts and there should be no let up of them.” The individual’s history—their past appearances in court and usage—might indicate that treatment is needed rather than a conviction, Seetahal added. Dealing with drug users in this manner, she said, had many benefits.
Most importantly, she said, this approach served the interest of the family and society, because it addressed the main issue—dependence. “After a drug user is labelled as a criminal, they move into the criminal world and because of their dependence, they commit crimes to satisfy their cravings, putting their families through even more trauma. What we need is a society of people who are not dependent. ”
The prisons and the judicial system would also reap benefits, she added. “It would free up the prisons because a lot of people are there for simple possession of drugs or for crimes, such as stealing, which they committed to satisfy their drug cravings.” Channeling court cases of drug users in a different direction, she explained, would give the court more time to deal with more serious issues.
Legalising marijuana, which is different from decriminalising it, would be a retrograde step, Seetahal pointed out. Saying she cannot see T&T legalising marijuana, she added, “We have sought to regulate tobacco but now we want to legalise marijuana, a gateway drug which affects the brain? I can’t see it happening.”
Israel Khan SC:
More empirical evidence is needed before moving toward decriminalising or legalising drugs like marijuana, criminal lawyer Israel Khan SC says. In highlighting several unanswered questions about marijuana, Khan said, “Some people say the use of marijuana leads to harder drugs, but I don’t know if there is any empirical evidence to prove that.”
Asked to comment on Dookeran’s call to find ways to decriminalise certain drugs, Khan said, “We cannot only look at what other countries do, because we have to consider other things like our culture.” Saying that some people in T&T drink alcohol as if it’s tea, he added, “Alcohol is a drug and can also be a gateway to other drugs and it has bad effects, but it’s legal.”
Khan said there were certain groups that used marijuana every day and he doesn’t know if that was good or bad, because he didn’t have any evidence to justify either opinion. In calling for an evidence-based approach to be taken, he added, “Before we move in any direction, we must have empirical evidence to back it up.”
What the OAS report said
The OAS Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas was commissioned by Heads of Government at the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Colombia in April, 2012. The report, presented in May, stated:
• Dependence on drugs is a chronic illness that requires a public health response (treatment).
• Drug users must not be seen as objects of the criminal justice system, but as chronically sick people who should be treated, rather than punished, for their dependence.
• Decriminalisation of drug use needs to be considered as a core element in any public health strategy.
• Incarceration runs counter to this approach and should only be used when an addict’s life is in danger or when his or her behavior constitutes a threat to society.
• Resources and programs available for implementing a public health response are scarce and restricted.
•Geographical remoteness, the stigma associated with seeking treatment, and high costs are obstacles drug users faced in accessing care.
• As a start, transitional methods, such as drug courts, substantial reductions in penalties, and rehabilitation, should be implemented.
• It would be worthwhile to assess existing signals and trends that lean toward the decriminalisation or legalisation of the production, sale, and use of marijuana.
• Decriminalising is eliminating criminal penalties for the unauthorised consumption and possession (typically of amounts small enough to be for personal use only) of a controlled substance.
• Decriminalisation includes non-criminal penalties such as fines, or interventions designed to dissuade users from continuing to consume illicit drugs.
• Legalising is eliminating legal prohibitions on the production, distribution, and use of a controlled substance for other than medical or scientific purposes, generally through replacement with a regulated market.
OAS Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas
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