AFC confident of all-party support to soften ganja penalties

-says delay in bill due to formulation of evidence-based policy

The Alliance For Change (AFC) is certain that despite differences of opinion, legislators from both sides of the House can find common ground in reducing custodial penalties for the possession of small quantities of the drug.

It also said yesterday that the delay in moving the bill forward was to enable evidence-based policy to be formulated.

“It’s not legalising cannabis or its smoking…[but a] reduction of custodial penalties for possession of small sums,” APNU+AFC parliamentarian Michael Carrington said of the proposed Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) (Amendment) Bill.

The bill, which was tabled by Carrington in December, 2015, has languished in legislative purgatory for two years but there is now renewed interest in it following the recent sentencing of a 27-year-old farmer to jail for three years for possession of eight grammes of marijuana.

The AFC has since expressed outrage at the sentencing and called for the bill, which proposed reduced custodial sentences, to be passed. The party’s position has found unexpected support in the person of Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo, who told reporters on Thursday that he personally supports the premise of the bill.

“Let us find another set of sentencing. Sentence them to community work – clean up a school compound – to rehabilitation. Let them spend a month [in] rehabilitation,” he said adding that members of the People’s Progressive Party/Civic would be allowed to vote according to their conscience if the matter is ever put to a vote in the National Assembly.

The AFC was, however, not impressed. Speaking at a press conference at the party’s Kitty Headquarters, party chairman and Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan referred to Jagdeo’s comments as “flagrant opportunism.”

Both he and Carrington drew attention to the fact that Jagdeo served as president for 12 years without addressing the issue.

“After being president for 12 years and not doing something …all of a sudden he wants to jump to front,” Carrington said while Ramjattan added that it was unseemly that Jagdeo was “jumping as if he is the promoter of this bill and when he was in government he did nothing.”

They noted that though the Act provides for an advisory council and a rehabilitation fund, none of these were put in place over the 23 years the PPP/C governed.

“Jailing a person doesn’t stop persons from smoking…We need to deal with rehab and education if we want to reduce the [use of marijuana],” Carrington said, before adding that perceptions of persons who smoke marijuana as bad is misplaced.

“People do drink and people do all sorts of other things. We need to shape them…smoking is not good but jailing a persons for smoking is also not good,” he stressed.

The legislator further explained that while the current Act provides for rehabilitation, a responsibility which falls under the Ministry of Public Health, in the absence of the rehab fund nothing can be done.  Meanwhile, Ramjattan said that the two-year lull in addressing the issue was an attempt by government to formulate evidence-based policy. He noted that the Caribbean Community and Pan-American Health Organisation had indicated that they would be conducting research into the impact of custodial sentencing on families and communities and the party was content to wait until they were finished.

“We have now come to a realise that it is indeed a bad idea for persons to be sentenced…we have an obligation to reduce the custodial sentence even the president is pardoning women who were convicted of possession of small amounts because he noted it is affecting the family,” Ramjattan said.

Ramjattan stressed that comments made by Attorney General Basil Williams and Minister of State Joseph Harmon do not represent a “divergence of views” on the issue the AFC is presenting.

“I do not see an inconsistency that is substantial ..,” he said, while adding that the custodial penalties are a burden on the state which has to find $490,000 a year to feed one prisoner, a resource which would be better spent otherwise.

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