A Regional Commission on the use of Marijuana established by the CARICOM Heads of Government on Monday heard of a need to not only decriminalize the use of marijuana, but also the need for legislative reform that will make marijuana fully legal for religious and medicinal purposes.
During a public consultation surrounding the use of marijuana in Georgetown, citizens told the Commission of how the existing illegal use and possession of marijuana were criminalizing the next generation of Guyanese leaders, contributing to prison overcrowding and robbing the country of many social and economic benefits.
The consultations are being held as part of the Caribbean Community’s call careful in-depth research to inform decision making on the issue.
One of the most dreadful stories told the Commission by Right Advocate, Nicole Cole who recalled meeting an incarcerated 77-year-old grandmother during a recent visit to the New Amsterdam Prison.
Cole said the woman is currently serving a three-year sentence for the possession of marijuana leaves and stems which she uses to make tea as a therapeutic remedy for her unidentified illness.
She said she hopes that whenever the President offers his pardons, the 77-year-old woman would make that list.
But Cole said that is by no means a fix to the problem in Guyana, where marijuana criminalization continues to affect the poor and powerless.
She calls it the “felonization of poverty.”
Cole is recommending that the laws be amended to decriminalize the possession of marijuana less than 56 grams. She said those found with less than 56 grams of marijuana should receive small fines instead of jail time.
In addition to that, she is urging legal exemptions of marijuana use for religious and medical purposes, the establishment of a marijuana licensing authority to regulate the industry and for the government to establish a rehabilitation fund, advisory council, and rehabilitation centers as catered for in existing legislation.
Cole was backed up in her contention by youth activist, Jermaine Grant, who said the criminalization of marijuana continues to play a role in criminalizing young people
He reasoned that it is a non-violent offense that guarantees jail time while for violent offenses judicial officers have the flexibility to impose fines.
This type of jailing of citizens, he said, was compounding prison overcrowding problems and continues to be a burden to the public purse.
He is lobbying for the rehabilitation of abusers instead of jail and also poured cold water on presidential pardons, which he argued was in no way a long-term remedy.
“The law can command society to change course,” he said as he advanced arguments for lesser penalties and fines.
But while Cole and Grant support the decriminalization of marijuana use and possession, the contention was not the same for popular Rastafarian activist Ras Leon Saul.
Saul recalled how he was arrested back in July 2014 and hauled before the courts when over a dozen police officers invaded his home and found marijuana under his pillow.
He said there is a need to fully legalize marijuana use but told the Commission that the Rastafarian community was prepared to accept decriminalization.
“We want total legalization, no half measures but will settle for decriminalization,” he said.
Chairwoman of Commission, Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine is Dean of Law the University of the West Indies and Professor of Labor Law and Offshore Financial Law.
She explained that the main purpose of the Commission is to listen to citizens and weigh the harm use of marijuana has against its benefits.
Professor Antoine said marijuana use remains a complex issue as governments look at the social and economic pros and cons.
She singled out Jamaica which has gone ahead and made changes to is law and said she believes a regional approach would be a useful one.