Cannabis users will understandably be on a high this week as days after Government is scheduled to host its first public consultation on decriminalisation of marijuana, a national rally calling for the legalisation of cannabis will also be held.
It is a time they have been waiting for.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi will be hosting the first public consultation on decriminalisation of marijuana which is open to all. The consultation is scheduled to take place at the National Academy for the Performing Arts in Port of Spain at 1 pm.
So far approximately 300 people have signalled their intention to attend. Consultations are expected to continue throughout the country until March.
The terms "legalisation" and "decriminalisation" are mistakenly used interchangeably when discussing cannabis legislation. However, as Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley said a few weeks ago, there is a "big difference" between the two.
But what exactly is the difference?
Decriminalisation, which is what Government is now seeking public consensus on, is the loosening of the criminal penalties now imposed for personal marijuana use, even though the manufacturing and sale of the substance remain illegal.
In the Dangerous Drug Act Chap 11:25, cannabis is listed in the first schedule of dangerous drugs along with others including, cocaine and heroin. There criminal consequences for anyone found in possession of it.
According to current law, if someone is found with cannabis in their possession they are guilty of an offence and are liable on summary conviction to a fine of $25,000 and imprisonment for five years. If convicted on indictment in the High Court, they are liable to a fine of $50,000 and imprisonment for a term over five years, but not exceeding 10 years.
Those penalties are the maximum range and are discretionary based on the amount of the drug found in one’s possession, along with previous convictions and other considerations the judge or magistrate may consider on sentencing.
In 2013, Chief Justice Ivor Archie asked whether drug trafficking and drug consumption should be treated differently. He said the burden placed on the T&T Police Service (TTPS), Prisons Service and the court would be lessened if decriminalisation is considered.
“The next suggestion is more controversial and lies properly in the realm of the policy makers but I offer these observations for consideration. After over a quarter of a century in the law, nine years of which were spent as a prosecutor actively involved in drug prosecutions and asset confiscation, I have come to the view that drug trafficking and drug consumption should be treated differently,” Archie said.
“Addiction is a disease and is as much a public health issue as it is a criminal problem. This is not a moral judgement although one might observe that marijuana consumption probably wreaks no more havoc than alcohol addiction, but we provide support for one and punishment for the other. The economic and social consequences of incarcerating large numbers of our youths for possession and/or consumption of small amounts of drugs are immense.”
He added: “Moreover, it is now appearing that the consensus about many of the assumptions about the effects of marijuana, in particular, is unravelling. So much so that CNN’s Dr Sanjay Gupta recently publicly changed his stance on the issue. In an economy where the state is the major employer and a criminal conviction is a bar to employment, we may be pushing minor non-violent offenders into criminality when they can be saved.”
“The burden on the police and prisons and the courts in terms of cost and human resource will be lessened if we focus on the scourge of trafficking, but as long as we have laws on the books we have to enforce them. We must take a long hard look at policy in this area.”
Decriminalisation is the avenue Jamaica has chosen to approach the issue of cannabis. On April 15, 2015, amendments were made to the Dangerous Drugs Act in Jamaica, so that possession of two ounces or less of marijuana is no longer an offence for which one can be arrested, charged and have to go to court.
However, the police may still issue a ticket to a person in possession of two ounces or less of marijuana and the person has 30 days to pay the fine.
Possession of more than two ounces of marijuana remains a criminal offence and offenders can be arrested, charged, tried in court and if found guilty, sentenced to a fine, imprisonment or both. The conviction will also be recorded on that person’s criminal record.
Jamaica has also opened the door for a regulated system of cannabis permits and licenses, as well as use for medical, therapeutic and religious purposes. Each household is allowed to legally cultivate up to five cannabis plants on its premises.
Legalisation is the removal of laws banning possession and personal use of marijuana. It also allows the government to regulate and tax cannabis use and sales.
Last October 17, Canada became the second country in the world to make cannabis legal for both recreational and medicinal purposes. Uruguay was the first country in the world to legalise cannabis.
Canada first legalised cannabis for medicinal use in 2001 before moving to full legalisation last year.
The All Mansions of Rastafari (AMOR), and its chairman Clyde Noel have called for Government to legalise cannabis instead of decriminalising it.
"For too long we have been suffering for a simple herb," he said.
"In that way we will be more free to do a lot of things which can help the economy tourism-wise, to reduce the crime rate and to also help create industries."
The report of the Caricom regional commission on marijuana has also called for cannabis to be declassified as a dangerous drug or narcotic, in all legislation and reclassified as a controlled substance.
The report recommends that Caricom states act to remove "prohibition" status from cannabis, substituting the current prohibitive, criminal sanctioned regime with legal and social policy that emphasises public health, education, and human rights.
The commission recommended that Caricom states either completely remove all prohibitive legal provisions, thereby rendering cannabis a legal substance, which is regulated only in strictly defined circumstances, or as a preparatory step, the decriminalisation of cannabis for personal use in private premises and medical purposes.
The Commission stated:
"Notwithstanding the endgame, the Commission does not believe that total legalisation in a fully liberalised regime is a plausible option at this juncture for Caricom. Yet, the Commission is of the view that a too limited approach to law reform, including one that focusses only on medical marijuana, would be counterproductive and inimical to the goals of Caribbean development, as outlined in the SDGs (United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals) and endorsed by Caricom.
"A balanced approach that would meet the main social justice, public health rights and citizen security objectives of the region would be a hybrid or mixed option. This would be an incremental and cautious approach to removing prohibition, but not too little that the goals would be frustrated, nor too much that Caricom states are unable to manage the important regulatory controls that are envisaged. This approach would best suit the developmental objectives of the region".
On Sunday AMOR ill be hosting its second national cannabis rally. It is scheduled for Skinner's Park in San Fernando starting at 1 pm and is a follow up to the first national cannabis rally held at Woodford Square, Port of Spain, last October, which was well attended and incident free.
Among the speakers are medical practitioner Dr Anthony Pottinger and criminologist Darius Figueira.
As the T&T Government begins the conversation about the way forward with regards to cannabis legislation, Douglas Gordon, founder of CanEx Jamaica Business Conference and Expo, called for a close look at the legal cannabis industry.
"We encourage the Government and members of the business, medical, educational and agricultural communities to look closely at the legal cannabis industry. The health benefits, cost savings, and opportunities for economic expansion are compelling and attainable," Gordon said.
"Whatever stigmas remain are to be understood and respected, but must be overcome. That process is actually fairly straightforward because the many positives to the industry are supported by extensive and irrefutable data.
"Trinidad and Tobago has the climate, capital, entrepreneurial capacity, and educational talent to realize very positive outcomes from their participation in the industry. On top of that the unquantifiable value of a population living with less pain, less anxiety, better sleep and a host of other substantive medicinal benefits, not to mention a tremendous increase in the overall sense of wellness, underlie the importance of facilitating a legal industry and participating in what is shaping up to be a substantive global opportunity," he said.
" This industry has been moving quickly and that speed will continue to accelerate as more countries join Canada and Uruguay along with the host of nations (including Mexico) that are now establishing legal adult-use industries. Given its natural talents, I truly believe that there remains a compelling economic opportunity for the country and stand fully prepared to leverage my experience and relationships support the legalization process in any way possible," Gordon said.
While many voices have come out in favour of changes to cannabis laws, there are those who still believe it has adverse effects.
Seventh Day Adventist pastor Clive Dottin has spoken out against decriminalisation of marijuana saying he has seen first hand its adverse effect, including turning "many youths into walking and talking zombies."
Dottin said cannabis has also caused impaired judgement, paranoia, loss of control, as well as reduced testosterone and damage to the tail of the sperm cell.
He has called on the authorities to be careful in moving forward on the issue.
The Office of the Attorney General and the Ministry of Legal Affairs has called for all persons with views on decriminalisation to make their voices heard during the public consultations.