Urgent need to revise sentencing policy for narcotic offences – GHRA

The Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) has said that if marijuana possession is not to be decriminalised, then the sentencing policy for narcotic offences needs urgent revision.

A release yesterday from the GHRA said that while the recent categorical rejection by the Minister of Home Affairs, Clement Rohee of the possibility of decriminalising the use and possession of marijuana, may be met with a mixed reception, the incoherent and unfair manner in which the law is currently applied must surely be a matter of universal discomfort.

The GHRA said that it remains concerned over the disproportionate harshness of sentencing for possession of marijuana in contrast with the apparent inability of the police or CANU to ever detect, much less convict the main suppliers of cocaine.

The human rights body gave the example of a female in November 2013 being sentenced to twelve years imprisonment and a fine of $120,000 on four charges for possession and trafficking of 2.8 grammes of cannabis and 1 gramme of cocaine. It said that the convicted 36-year old woman had been caught in a sting operation in which a police officer had approached her home to purchase the drugs in question. The police had then searched the premises and recovered the money and the drugs i.e. 2.8 grammes and 1 gramme of cocaine.

GHRA related that the next day the woman was placed before the Chief Magistrate and had pleaded guilty, for which she gained no benefit for having not wasted the court’s time. She was sentenced to twelve years comprising three years on each of four charges (possession and trafficking in marijuana and possession and trafficking in cocaine), to run concurrently, plus four fines of $30,000 in cash. The crime, according to (SN 1/11/13) had been committed on October 30, and on the following day she had been sentenced to 12 years in prison.

According to the release, several factors about this case were disturbing. The habit of separating ‘possession’ as a separate case from ‘trafficking’ for the purpose of increasing the sentence is perverse on the part of the police. GHRA asserted that trafficking assumes possession. It said the fact that a woman should be sentenced to three years for possession of 2.8 grammes of marijuana at a time when many countries are actively decriminalising marijuana possession, is bizarre. She also received a further three years for possession of 1 gramme of cocaine.

GHRA observed that professional mules carrying kilos of cocaine through Cheddi Jagan airport rarely, if ever, attract more than four years.

The human rights body stated that a cursory review over the past three years showed discrepancies in sentencing, citing the examples of a New Amsterdam man being imprisoned for five years and fined $4.9M for possession of 1.8 kg of cannabis; a woman receiving 18 months plus a $30,000 fine for trafficking 150 grammes of cannabis and 8 grammes of cocaine; a man walking home with his friend from a bar received 3 years and $20,000 for possession of 3 grammes of cocaine and 2 grammes of cannabis. He had informed the court that his friend had not been charged because he had paid the police $20,000, while he had had no money to do so; an 18-year old young woman was remanded to prison with possession of 26 grammes of marijuana found in a house, after police had followed her. As reported, bail was refused “because of the seriousness of the offence.”

The GHRA in commenting on the case at the time had stated that “the practice of finding narcotics in a house and the police charging whoever happens to be on the premises is an abuse which has resulted in many innocent people being jailed over the years. The standard operating procedure is to arrest a range of people in the hope that between them one will plead guilty. Many similar cases have seen males ending up in Camp Street and female partners in New Amsterdam prison for a statutory three-year sentence over small quantities of marijuana, working great hardships on children and everyone concerned.”

It said that the harshness of the 12-year sentence referred to earlier was counter-productive. The impression given was that the risk is greater in trafficking marijuana than cocaine because ‘coke’ is more lucrative and the penalty is the same. Another counter-productive feature is to discourage people from ever pleading ‘not guilty.’

According to the GHRA, sting operations by the police have their place in crime-fighting, but in the context of policing in Guyana they nonetheless raise misgivings. In particular, the widespread harassment by police officers of innocent citizens for bribes and other abuses of authority renders such approaches unsafe. Moreover, the circumstances of the charges against the woman who received twelve years, namely, the police going to her home to purchase drugs, leaves a lot unsaid. Did she alone live in the house? Were any females involved in the sting? What promises were made that may have misled her to plead guilty?

Finally, the GHRA pointed out the contrast between the prison terms handed down in haphazard fashion to the street runners and other ‘small fish,’ contrast sharply with the inability of the police to put drug suppliers before the court.