Move towards marijuana reclassification should emphasise health, education, human rights

-CARICOM commission

In recommending that CARICOM states reclassify cannabis as a “controlled substance” instead of as a “dangerous drug” or narcotic, the Regional Commission on Marijuana has said that a legal and social policy that emphasises public health, education and human rights should be adopted.

“The analysis of the comprehensive information gathered indicates that the current legal regime for cannabis/marijuana, characterised as it is by prohibition and draconian criminal penalties, is ineffective, incongruous, obsolete and deeply unjust. After considering the most up to date evidence and the views of Caribbean peoples, the Commission is unanimous in its view that the status quo with respect to the legal regime governing cannabis/marijuana cannot be maintained and legal reform should be a priority for Member States,’” the Commission declared in its report.

The report, seen by Sunday Stabroek, also noted that CARICOM states should have a margin of appreciation as to how to achieve this ultimate goal, either by complete and immediate removal of all prohibitive legal provisions, thereby rendering cannabis/marijuana a legal substance regulated only in strictly defined circumstances, or, as a preparatory step, the decriminalisation of cannabis/marijuana for personal use in private premises and medical purposes.

Noting the call for caution in some quarters, the Commission said, “A public health rights based approach is better able to confront the challenging multidimensional parameters of the drug problem, including its health, social justice and citizen security aspects.”

However, while it said the end-goals for CARICOM should be the removal of the prohibitionist regime that has proven to be ineffective, unjust and caused more harm than it sought to prevent, it added that “does not believe that total legalisation in a fully liberalised regime is a plausible option at this juncture for CARICOM.”

Further, it was of the view that a too limited approach to law reform, “including one that focusses only on medical marijuana, would be counterproductive and inimical to the goals of Caribbean development, as outlined in the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) and endorsed by CARICOM.”

As a result, it recommended “A balanced approach that would meet the main social justice, public health rights and citizen security objectives of the region that would be a hybrid or mixed option.”

The Commission’s report, which was compiled after region-wide consultations, was presented to the CARICOM Heads of Government at its last annual conference in Montego Bay, Jamaica, earlier this month for consideration. At the conclusion of the conference, CARICOM Chairman and Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness reported that the regional heads agreed that action is necessary at the national level by the relevant authorities to review the relevant status of marijuana as a schedule one drug with a view to reclassification.

They also agreed, he said, that each member state would determine its own pathway to pursue the law reforms necessary as proposed by the Commission, in keeping with its own circumstances.

According to the report, the Commission’s recommendations were made after “carefully evaluating the evidence, including the most up-to-date body of medical and scientific research on the multi-faceted and complex subject of cannabis/marijuana.”

The Commission, established by CARICOM Heads of Government and led by University of the West Indies professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, found that marijuana, which has had historical, cultural and religious significance in the Commonwealth Caribbean, “existed benignly as a beneficial plant without condemnation or legal intervention for centuries.”

The Commission said that marijuana acquired an illegal status and classification as a “dangerous drug” with “no value” without scientific or moral rationales to support the radical change in the law, both locally and internationally.

“There is considerable evidence to suggest that this transformation was due to cynical motives to quash competition with the alcohol industry, itself emerging from prohibition and even racial policy. This resulted in the draconian legal regime existing today which by virtue of its now illegal classification, acquired a demonised social status,” it said, while noting that marijuana has been proven to be less harmful than legalised substances, such as alcohol.

Acknowledging documented health risks associated with marijuana use, the Commission said medical science has disproved some of the most important myths or propaganda about marijuana’s supposed negative physiological impact, including a causative link to psychosis. It has also proved that marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol and other substances that are no longer prohibited and in many respects, it is less so.

It, however, recommended that measures be put in place to support public health education, prevention and treatment, support for research on the beneficial and harmful effects of marijuana.

In terms of special provisions to regulate marijuana for medical purposes, the Commission’s recommendations include “qualifying conditions in which there is clear evidence of its therapeutic effects and for debilitating, life threatening conditions that are intractable to treatment in which there is evidence of possible benefits.”

The Commission suggested that environmental conservation and preservation must guide commercial marijuana activities, public education programmes should be prioritised, a data collection system to track processes and outcomes should be established, and regular performance evaluations should be conducted to guide policy refinements.

It recommended that states with legal marijuana develop licensing policies for all actors in the recreational marijuana supply chain, including retailers, limiting allowable THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) products, and limit its appeal by implementing restrictions on marketing through traditional media. Marketing and advertising controls, it said, can be guided by the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and its guidelines for alcohol control.

The Commission noted that calls for law reform, in particular, the decriminalisation of marijuana came not just from the public at large, but from churches, law enforcement, judges, magistrates, the legal fraternity, the medical fraternity, national commissions on cannabis/marijuana, informed NGO groups, organisations and professionals.

The argument for law reform, the Commission said, “is premised on the finding that the identified risks are more effectively managed and minimised within a responsibly regulated public health/rights framework and market, than a punitive criminal justice led response and unregulated criminal market.”

It further recommended that states regulate the locations of marijuana retail establishments by ensuring an appropriate distance from playgrounds and schools and prohibiting stores that sell other products to minors from selling marijuana. Regula-tions should be aimed at reducing the likelihood of children accidentally ingesting marijuana.

It recommended full prohibition for children and adolescents, with an appropriate age limit except for medical reasons. Young people who use marijuana, it said, should be directed to treatment and diversion programmes rather than being prosecuted or criminalised.

The Commission also recommended that commercial cannabis activities should be decriminalised or legalised to avoid the implications of anti-money laundering legislation and proceeds of crime legislation, that special provisions protect religious rights in the new regime, and that retroactivity should be a tool to correct past injustices, such as expungement of criminal records.

Marijuana use, the Commission said, should be banned in public spaces and vaping restrictions adopted for public spaces, including work places and places frequented by children.

It recommended limited distribution points for cannabis and its products, that small farmers and small business persons be included in production and supply arrangements with appropriate controls limiting large enterprise and foreign involvement, and that an equitable land use policy for marijuana cultivation be formulated.

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