AS THE debate on whether marijuana should be decriminalised heats up with recent interventions by groups such as All Mansions Of Rastafari (AMOR), it is worth paying attention to the experience of our Drug Treatment Court and what it shows us about the issue. The court demonstrates that the crucial factor in combating drug use is not the imposition of criminal penalties.
A drug treatment court is one in which offenders undergo rehabilitation instead of traditional penalties such as jail time. In 2012, the Drug Treatment Court pilot was set up by the TT Judiciary. It is a collaborative effort by the Organization of the American States and funded by the Government of Canada.
The court is part of a global movement away from the rigid imposition of criminal fines to rehabilitation. Similar courts have been introduced in Barbados, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Chile, Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, Norway, Scotland, and Ireland. And these courts work.
As far back as 2005, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime stated that “evaluations consistently show that drug treatment courts effectively reduce recidivism and underlying addiction problems of drug abusing offenders. They provide closer, more comprehensive supervision and more frequent drug testing and monitoring during the programme than other forms of community supervision.”
The idea of decriminalising marijuana has been met with the standard rebuttal that criminalisation is needed to protect society from the harmful effects of drug addiction. Yet the status quo is clearly not preventing people from accessing drugs. Worse, criminalisation has not proven effective when it comes to helping users and protecting them from deepening the cycle of addiction. Instead, criminalisation has simply created a revolving door, with considerable resources being diverted.
While more research is needed on conditions in TT, it is likely the bulk of drug users who end up before the courts are from a relatively small cadre of repeat users. According to a 2013 World Bank paper authored by Jamaican Drug Treatment Court expert Stephane Jackson-Haisley (now a judge on Jamaica’s Supreme Court), approximately 20 per cent of drug users account for nearly 80 per cent of drug use.
By progressively reducing dependence among hardcore drug users, drug courts not only reduce the demand for drugs but also diminish the profitability of transnational criminal organisations that threaten the regional economy.
We may like to think criminal penalties are a substantial deterrent to drug use. But in jurisdictions such as Portugal, the evidence suggests otherwise. In 2001, Portugal decriminalised drugs and offered users treatment instead of jailing and fining them. Ten years later, the results were striking.
“The phenomenon of addiction is in decline in Portugal,” said Joao Goulao, president of the Institute of Drugs and Drugs Addiction, in 2011.
We should take note.