Recognising that marijuana offences are putting pressure on the justice and prison systems, legislators say that consultations are needed to determine whether there is a need to decriminalise minor related offences and legalise the drug for personal use.
There continue to be frequent prosecutions for possession, trafficking and to a lesser extent cultivation and not only are the Magistrates’ Courts feeling the pressure but also the High Court, where persons often go in an attempt to get bail once it has been refused at the lower court.
Last week, Guyanese-born security specialist Dr Ivelaw Griffith told this newspaper in an exclusive interview that he supports the “selective decriminalisation” of marijuana as part of the overall strategy for responding to the wider drug threat facing the Caribbean region. He went on to say that countries in the region have long complained that it makes little sense to arrest for one marijuana cigarette simply to spend hundreds of hours in the courts that are already overcrowded.
Stabroek News asked both the Attorney General Anil Nandlall and Opposition Leader David Granger about their positions on the legalisation of marijuana. The AFC, when contacted, was unable to offer a comment on the issue.
Nandlall noted that the issue had been the subject of an ongoing debate for some time now. He said that recently it has picked up great momentum because of certain legislative and policy changes, which have been made in both the United States and Canada. He said that a number of states in the United States have passed legislation which legalises the use of marijuana up to a certain quantity as well as for medicinal use. Similar changes, Nandlall said, are taking place in Canada and he added that he is aware that Canada is on the market to purchase marijuana to be used there for medicinal purposes and that several Caribbean countries have the matter under consideration.
Nandlall said that in terms of Guyana, he knows “of strong views held by large groupings within our country both for and against the decriminalisation question.” He said that perhaps the time has come for us to begin a national conversation on the matter and for public consultations to be held.
According to the Attorney General, in terms of the revision of the penalty for the possession of marijuana which currently obtains in our laws, “again, this had been the subject of ongoing debate”. He reminded this newspaper of the changes that were made to the law to allow for persons with small quantities not to suffer imprisonment as a mandatory sanction as it was before.
He said that the magistrate has the discretion authority to decide whether to impose a fine or imprisonment if the quantity is of a particular size. “Perhaps the time has come for us to revisit this aspect of our law again, especially in light of the changes taking place internationally,” he said.
He added that the question will always be who would be the driving force behind such an initiative, having regard to the fact that there is strong public opinion in respect of both sides. He said there is a view that there needs to be stronger penalties for crime, especially unlawful drugs and drug-related crime, while, on the other hand, the more liberalist will argue for decriminalisation as well as a reduction in the penalty.
Granger, who noted that the main opposition APNU does not have a position on the issue and has not discussed it, said he believed that attitudes towards marijuana and the enforcement of the law are creating more problems than they are solving. “…The present attitudes to marijuana consumption and trafficking are creating bigger problems, bigger social problems,” he said. “I agree with you that the criminalising of marijuana has contributed to the large number of persons who are in jail,” he said.
He said that there are many persons, particularly women in the New Amsterdam area, who have been imprisoned for trafficking in small amounts of marijuana. “I think this is a pity because many times we find prisoners or the persons who are criminalised are mothers and they are forced to leave children unattended for three years or more,” he said, while noting that the large number of persons who have been imprisoned for use of marijuana is creating more problems than it is solving.
But Granger noted that Griffith might have drawn his experience from a different jurisdiction, while adding that what is needed is a careful study of Guyana. “I think the basis of such a study must arise out of consultations with different persons in Guyana itself. So it is not a question of one size fits all. We can’t just take something from one jurisdiction and plant it in another jurisdiction,” he stressed.
He went on to say that in the case of Guyana, there are religious considerations, since members of the Rastafarian community have different views on the use of marijuana, as well as legal and medical considerations. He said that there have been some investigations into the medical application of marijuana for relieving pain and curing certain diseases.
Asked whether it would be wise to go the route of legalising it for personal use as Jamaica attempted to do back in 2000, Granger said that this is something that can be addressed during consultations. He made the point there is already difficulties preventing alcohol consumption in persons under 18 and “we don’t want marijuana to penetrate society.” He said that there are reports and evidence of marijuana abuse in some hinterland schools.
“I am very cautious in transplanting experiences from one jurisdiction to another and as I said countries like Jamaica have a different experience with marijuana and even some developed countries, I think, in the Netherlands, may have different attitudes to legalising marijuana,” he said.
“If it becomes an issue in Guyana, we can have a consultation with our constituents and arrive at a solution which is desired by all of the stakeholders. We don’t want to make a decision without the regulatory framework in place. You have to look at the social impact. The impact on children, the impact on families and households and the impact on society,” he said.
‘Jail is not the solution’
Chief Counsellor for the Salvation Army Steve Sookraj believes that jail is not the answer and is of the opinion that the accused must first be assessed to determine whether he/she is a chronic user and in need of rehabilitation.
Speaking to Stabroek News, Sookraj said that to be able to effectively assess these persons, there needs to be a system at the courts where a drug counsellor is available. He said that when a case comes before the court, the magistrate instead of jumping to a conclusion should first get the involvement of the drug counsellor. He said that it should be based on the report of the drug counsellor that the court should make a decision as a court may not be able to independently recognise the signs of addiction or detect the differences between a first time user and a chronic user. “Jail is not the solution to the problem. There is rapid use even in there [jail]… when you go in there it is like you are not being punished because you still have access to it and you are still using,” he said.
According to Sookraj, more persons are using the drug because it is more accessible but at the same time they are not recognising its dangers.
Sookraj is strongly against legalising marijuana. He said that given the history of the drug, it would create problems if it is legalised even for personal use. “You get psychological damage after a while,” he said, while adding that marijuana is often referred to as a gateway drug.
Sookraj also said that he is counselling persons as young as 15 and he questioned what will happen if it becomes legal.
Meanwhile, a security source made the point that in wake of the problems already being faced with fighting alcoholism, legalising marijuana might just make matters worse. The source said that we will be faced with a variety of problems, including an overburdened medical system.
The source said that he does not agree with sending persons to jail for minor marijuana offences and instead favours non-custodial sentences, such as a fine, community
service or treatment if it is determined that the offender has an addiction.
According to the source, Guyana’s population is too small to allow the legalising of marijuana. “It should not be legalised… our social and medical costs will be more,” the source stressed.
A source within the judiciary, however, differed, saying the drug should be decriminalised entirely as it is a plant that was placed on earth by God and scientists have found that it is less addictive than alcohol. According to the source, it would make much more sense to send repeat offenders to rehabilitation as oppose to jail. The source said that if this is done and persons are given lighter penalties for minor offences, it will help to reduce the overcrowding in the prison. According to the source, lots of persons go to the High Court for bail on marijuana-related offences. The source pointed out that marijuana is not something that we can stop from growing as it will always be there. It was noted that by making it illegal, a whole lot of problems have been created.