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Sunday 26 January 2020
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New marijuana legislation affects illegal trade

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LONG BEFORE President Paula-Mae Weekes decreed it was legal for people to consume and carry certain amounts of marijuana, the illicit plant was not only used and shared but also sold in this country.

People who wanted a “small smoke” – weighing between 0.5 and 0.7 grammes of regular marijuana, usually called "Kush" or "Colombian," – could get that for about $25. Those who want more could pay by weight up to a quarter ounce, which these days could go for anywhere between $100 and $150, depending on who you ask.

If you want even more than that and want to go to your legal limit of 30 grammes, a little more than an ounce, you could get that
as well for a ballpark figure of $700.

It was sold on the streets and at parties. It was sold to people from all walks of life, from university students to businessmen to middle-class workers. It was sold not only in its leafy form but also in edibles like cakes, brownies, cheesecakes and the like. There have even been some stories of some marijuana dealers making home deliveries.

But how has this changed since marijuana was decriminalised? Are more people buying weed? Are people buying more weed? Have the prices changed since decriminalisation? Or is it business as usual?

Business Day approached – let’s call them “small businessmen” – who specialised in the distribution of the plant, and the word on the street is, so far, nothing has changed.

But according to consultants on the law, changes will come and soon.

“Is the same people coming, and they are buying the same amount. Nothing changed,” said one man from Port of Spain. “It is the same customers that I am dealing with. But they are saying that now they are glad because they can walk with their 'smoke' in their hand.”

The new amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act allow citizens to possess up to 30 grammes of marijuana. It also allows each adult to grow up to four plants at home. But the sale of the illicit plant without licence is still illegal. There are several other laws that could put people like our small businessman from PoS in a lot of expense, and behind bars for a long time.

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Possession of more than 30 grammes of marijuana but less than 60 grammes could land you with a fine of up to $50,000, but if you are unable to pay it, the court may order you to do 30 hours of community service.

But what happens if you are held with more than 60 grammes of marijuana?

Well, if you have less than 100 grammes you would be liable to a fine of $75,000 or community service.

However the fine for trafficking marijuana has increased from $100,000 to $3 million.

Police sources said they establish street value from intelligence on the market price. Depending on the grade of marijuana, the price will vary. The better the grade, the higher the price.

“That is why I keep hiding it the same way and doing my thing the same way,” said the PoS businessman. “This amendment was really for the people who consume it. It made no big difference for me.”

On the other hand, there are several openings for people to legitimately distribute marijuana.

According to the
the Cannabis Control Bill the Attorney General will have the power to distribute licences for the cultivation, gathering or production of marijuana. Pharmacists can give a written prescription and a medical order as well as distributing marijuana according to the current law.

The bill, which is expected to go before a joint select committee in February, proposes to give people licences for handling marijuana for medicinal, therapeutic or scientific purposes, as well as for religious purposes.

Clause 30 of the bill would allow an authority to issue licences, which would vary from cultivation licences, to export and transport licences and everywhere in between.

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Another small businessman, from west Trinidad, said the amendment to the law as well as plans for future legislation were an elaborate scheme designed to “squeeze out the small man.”

“Who will really get licence to sell weed? No small man going to get no licence,” he said. “Is them big boy and them who will get the good weed.”

He felt the future of marijuana would not be in the hands of the “small man” but those of big business. Fewer people would go to the “block” for marijuana, and they will soon be going to dispensaries to get their fix.

“Them big boy and them will bring it in by the container and sell it over the counter, like in foreign. The small man on the ground getting excited about the bill, but it is a high maths. They will make it hard for the poor man.”

For now there seem not to have been many changes, after all, it has only been a week since the amendments were made law. But according to the businessman in the west, there will be major changes in the ways people will access their marijuana in the near future.

“Just now everyone looking to plant their thing,” he said. “Remember, is four plants to a person. If there are ten people in a house, then that is 40 plants. Then there would be people who would go over the counter. And over the counter you may get a different variety. Nobody ain’t going on no block again.”

He may be right. Cannabis consultant Marcus Ramkissoon suggested it would seem future plans to regulate the cannabis industry would not only put “businessmen” like the man from Port of Spain and the west out of business, but could dismantle the illicit cannabis trade altogether.

The changes in the legislation, and the way they are designed, were necessary to maintain relations with international bodies. Dismantling the black market, rather than legitimising it, could be beneficial for the average weed smoker or for the person who uses it as a religious sacrament.

Firstly, he said, the laws and amendments proposed in the Cannabis Control Bill were designed to comply with commitments to international bodies.

“We as TT are part of a family of nations, which is part of the UN. If there is something we want, then we have to present it, then a decision is made. However, with such a large family, it will not change very quickly.”

But he said if TT does not comply with the rules of this “family,” they would find a way to reprimand the country. It may be as lenient as a warning, or TT could be blacklisted or sanctioned. Regardless, some of these reprimands could be detrimental to the economy.

Buying from illicit traders is illegal and could be dangerous. Ramkissoon recounted a situation in Amsterdam in 2014 where strains of marijuana were laced with glass shards.

A 2007 report in the UK Guardian indicated that there were strains of marijuana which were laced with glass beads. They called it “grit weed.”

Locally, seasoned marijuana smokers recalled a strain called “press.” This came in a compacted block, was seedy and had a greasy, black colour.

It was laced with embalming fluids. Some people complained of nausea and headaches after consuming it. It wasn’t until the influx of other strains, like “vincy,” which came from St Vincent, and hydroponically grown marijuana, that the strain was phased out.

One marijuana smoker, who asked to be called AJ because “she didn’t want people in her business,” said when she started at 18, strains like “press” were popular.

“I suffered from insomnia, and I had just turned 18 and it was recommended to me as an alternative to sleeping pills. I also grew up around marijuana smokers, so I didn’t see it as taboo.

“When I first smoked press, I thought that was the way marijuana was supposed to be.

"But later on, I found out about the chemicals that were in it. Now that I have experience I can tell whether or not the marijuana I buy is laced or is poorly handled. Now, I wouldn’t touch 'press' with a ten-foot pole,” AJ said.

Many can also remember the rare but widely talked about “black,” which is a marijuana joint laced with cocaine.

Ramkissoon made it clear that when you buy from an illegal dealer, you rarely know what you are buying, and the end product could be harmful.

“Do you really think those people growing illegally in Colombia and supplying to dealers down here are using organic products? They are using the cheapest and sometimes banned products to cure and package.”

The proposal to legitimise the industry by putting a properly regulated system in place would provide jobs, and give people access to properly treated and handled marijuana. If the bill is approved, people would have access to properly-tended marijuana, at a slightly higher price because of licensing, but, according to Ramkissoon, a certain percentage of marijuana could be sold at close to street value, and dispensaries selling the herb would be easily accessible.

Ramkissoon has made these suggestions to the government and said if they are accepted, the nation could have up to 100 licences in the first year for dispensaries.

He said he and other consultants worked out a system where dispensaries could be available for every 10,000 people, or every five kilometres, which could prevent surplus production – a major problem in marijuana states like Colorado and countries like Canada”

Other proposals include group licences, monitoring and tracking of cannabis dispensaries, giving dispensary licences to physically handicapped people or those with a criminal record who are having trouble finding a job, and free dispensaries for religious practitioners who use marijuana as a sacrament.

So while things have not changed much in the illegal marijuana market as yet, in the near future, the “pusher man” could be a thing of the past.

Even AJ, who developed personal relationships with some dealers, said she would prefer going to a dispensary.

“When I go to a dealer I feel as though I am going to buy crack. I feel like I am going to the black market.”

Both AJ and Ramkissoon said the current laws were a step in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go. They also agreed the future seemed bleak for dealers as the industry progresses from illicit to legitimised.

Ramkissoon said, “If you were, before the change of the law and even now, a dealer of marijuana – if you weren’t around I wouldn’t have gotten my cannabis – so thank you very much. But realistically, if you are physically handicapped or socially handicapped, meaning you are having trouble finding work because of a criminal record, then I can understand why you would get into the illicit trade. But all the young, strong men and women that I have seen in the industry: the only reason they are selling or growing is because it is illegal and there is a higher profit.

“Other people are working regular jobs and surviving. How is it fair that they could sit at home and sell something illegal and make more money?”

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