ALL SHOULD welcome the signal sent by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley on the question of decriminalisation of marijuana use as it relates to the overcrowding of our criminal justice system.
“We in this country have a problem,” Rowley said on Sunday speaking at a PNM event held at the Diego Martin Community Centre. “Our jails are full of young people, largely young men, because they smoked… marijuana.” He disclosed he was in discussions with Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi for the legislation criminalising marijuana to be looked at in 2018.
We have previously called for marijuana to be removed from the first schedule of the Dangerous Drugs Act, which wrongly classifies it as an unsafe narcotic alongside substances like heroin and cocaine. There are about 94,000 cases pending in the magistrates’ court, representing a major strain on the criminal justice system.
But worse, as pointed out by the Prime Minister, the law also results in a situation in which people of lower income brackets are made to pay a higher price. Many cannot afford legal representation or post bail. Such people end up being jailed, lose prospects for future employment and are hobbled by a reduced capacity to earn a living.
Meanwhile, higher income people are better able to engage with the legal system and to access rehabilitation. The result is a system that works against the more vulnerable in our society while doing so in the name of protecting society from harm.
The law as it stands results in billions in state funding being diverted into fighting an endless “war on drugs” and criminality tied to the drug trade. After decades of this effort, we are yet to see an end in sight.
What is needed is a balanced consideration of public policy issues alongside the relevant health factors. The Drug Advisory Committee and the Chief Medical Officer should be asked to rule on the question of medical marijuana.
Rowley said he did not believe there were no deleterious effects from smoking marijuana. Indeed, recent studies have shown there are circumstances in which marijuana use could increase risks. Yet, it is clear that the risks are by now far outweighed by the damaging social effects of the current legislative framework as well as the prevalence of use, especially among our youth, notwithstanding the law.
The Prime Minister’s position was perhaps inevitable given strong lobbying from groups such as the Caribbean Collective for Justice in July, as well as the setting up of public consultations on the issue after Caricom’s special commission recommended an end to the marijuana ban. Last week, St Vincent and the Grenadines agreed to send three medical marijuana bills to a parliamentary select committee, continuing a regional trend.
The review exercise triggered by the Prime Minister is welcomed. It gives the State an opportunity to reflect the changing tide on this issue.