APNU now on board for lessening sentence for small amounts of ganja – AFC

Cathy Hughes

A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) has joined forces with its coalition partner, the Alliance for Change and will support a Bill later this year in lightening sentencing for possession of small amounts of cannabis, AFC Executive Cathy Hughes last week announced.

This development comes around a month after President David Granger signalled in Jamaica that his government would move towards a lessening of sentences for small amounts of ganja. He was in Jamaica for the CARICOM Heads summit where the decriminalising of possession of small amounts of ganja was high on the agenda. Prior to Granger’s statement in Jamaica, APNU had not stated its support for lightening sentences.

“We are quite excited. There is a pending Cabinet memo, whereby we recognize that the APNU has now come on board and is supporting our position regarding the reducing of penalties with regards to marijuana,“ Hughes told a press conference last week Wednesday at Public Buildings.

“It is something that MP (Michael Carrington) had brought ..and has been on the order paper for over two years. We are excited that there is movement and there is some understanding and we are able to come to a common position,” she added.

This newspaper reached out to APNU’s General Secretary Joseph Harmon and APNU+AFC Chief Whip Amna Ally for comment but was unsuccessful. Calls to their respective mobile numbers went unanswered.

But Hughes and AFC Leader Raphael Trotman boasted that the consensus reached was demonstrative of the amiable relationship APNU and the AFC share.

“It really shows how we operate at Cabinet. We are independent parties but through a process of discussion … quite often we are able to come to a position of compromise,” Hughes said.

Trotman reasoned that for too long, youths especially were subjected to long periods of incarceration for small amounts of marijuana; an occurrence he believes does more harm than to rehabilitate or help them.

“We intend to see Mr. Carrington’s Bill, or an adaptation of it, before the end of 2018. We are going to reduce the sentences so that people… are not incarcerated for three years for a joint. Families are being ruined over something. We are not saying it is right but don’t kill people’s dreams because of a little error,” he posited.

A Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) (Amendment) Bill, intended to address the sentencing provisions of the law, was tabled by Carrington in December, 2015, and has been left to languish in legislative purgatory since that time.

In May of this year, Carrington had told this newspaper that he was confident that there would be movement by the end of June.

“The party [AFC] has decided that we are gonna push it [the bill]. It should come up very soon by… next month… I will have at least the full support and the AFC and some members of the opposition may support it because it may go to a conscience vote,” he said.

Although Carrington, an AFC member, suggested that it was APNU that delayed a debate of the bill after it was tabled, State Minister and APNU Chairman Harmon declined to respond to the assertion. He said that the issue is not about APNU and AFC, but about a member of the government’s side who has filed a bill which is “being dealt with by the government side. That’s the position.”

Harmon’s comments had come in wake of the widespread outrage that was triggered by the sentencing of Carl Mangal to three years in jail for the possession of 8.4 grammes of cannabis for trafficking.

That sentence has since been appealed.

Renewed calls

The sentence prompted renewed calls for the reform of the jail term imposed, with many arguing that it was too harsh given the small quantity of the prohibited drug with which the father of three had been found.

Harmon has said the government believes the current laws do not allow magistrates the discretion to impose sentences below the mandatory minimum for possession of small amounts of marijuana, although a recent High Court judgment suggests otherwise.

The Minister of State had noted that the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Act, which was signed into law by the late President Desmond Hoyte in 1988, does not provide magistrates with discretion when they are dealing with amounts above a certain level. He further noted that the magistrates have to utilise what is outlined in the law and opined that if there is need for changes to the existing legislation, then that is the “responsibility of the legislative branch.”

Indeed, in handing down the three-year sentence to Mangal, Principal Magistrate Judy Latchman told his crying relatives that she was acting according to the law. However, a ruling by Justice Jo-Ann Barlow in March, on the constitutionality of the mandatory minimum three-year sentence for ganja trafficking, had affirmed that magistrates do have the discretion to impose lighter sentences where special circumstances may warrant.

Carrington had said too that he will be doing some fine-tuning to the existing version of the bill, after which it will engage the attention of the House. Stressing that he is not seeking to legalise marijuana but rather to remove some of the jail sentences for possession of small amounts, he singled out the absence of funding for rehab as one of the things he has an issue with. The Act provides for an advisory council and a rehabilitation fund but none of these was ever put in place.

Opposition People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPP/C) Leader Bharrat Jagdeo has said that he personally supports the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana and members of the PPP/C would be allowed to vote on the lowering of the sentencing bill according to their conscience, if it is ever put to a vote in the National Assembly.

At the same time, he stressed that he was not in favour of people being caught with small amounts of marijuana going scot-free. “Let us find another set of sentencing. Sentence them to community work – clean up a school compound – to rehabilitation,” he said.

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