Govt seeks dialogue on cannabis

  • Drugs debate: Government has pledged a public consultation on the idea of decriminalising cannabis.

    Drugs debate: Government has pledged a public consultation on the idea of decriminalising cannabis.

Critic calls cannabis move ‘political expediency’

Decriminalising cannabis was backed in the 2012 election by independent candidate Jonathan Starling — who sees a multitude of factors at play in Government’s commitment to a public discussion.

Mr Starling said he believed many independents shared his position at the time.

The former Progressive Labour Party member noted the PLP had supported a rethink of the Island’s sentencing regime for drug offences.

The Throne Speech pledge by the One Bermuda Alliance included “a degree of political expediency”, Mr Starling said.

Government has noted the rising support for decriminalisation, he said, as well as “the growing literature of research” demonstrating its potential benefits.

“They’re going to get kudos for it. Having said that, there’s also a not insignificant resistance to it. Hence why I think they’re adopting a very conservative and cautious approach. They’re not committing to decriminalisation, but to a public consultation paper. I think they’re trying to walk a fine line by appearing supportive but not taking a firm position. I don’t think they want to alienate their socially conservative supporters, but at the same time they want to curry favour among socially liberal voters.”

Mr Starling said the latest discussion proposal was driven in part by “a growing realisation, especially among the younger generations, that the ‘war on drugs’ has not just failed, but been counter-productive”.

Criminalising drugs had helped empower criminal elements, as well as “unnecessarily criminalising individuals — leading to a knock-on problem for those criminalised in terms of finding work and travelling”.

He added: “I think there’s also a growing recognition that the current system also has an uncomfortable racial element — being yet one more symptom of the structural racism that still haunts our Island.”

A public consultation paper on the decriminalisation of cannabis has been promised by Government in its latest Throne Speech.

National Security Minister Michael Dunkley has made no secret in recent months of the need for open public dialogue on the issue — but yesterday’s speech said the time had come.

The coming legislative session will include a paper on decriminalisation, plus “an examination of its wider uses” — also covering various research on the drug, its potential uses, and the impact of a policy shift.

The move has been welcomed by groups concerned by the harsh impact of Bermuda’s cannabis conviction regime, especially on young black men.

CURB president Mark Nash noted that decriminalisation had been an item in the group’s racial justice programme in the build-up to last year’s election.

“Many young black males are stopped and searched under the ‘no probable cause’ legislation contained in Section 315F of the Criminal Code, which CURB has been advocating to be repealed since 2011,” Mr Nash told The Royal Gazette.

Calling simple possession a victimless crime, Mr Nash said an alternative approach had to be decided that didn’t result in the lifelong punishment of a criminal record and its accompanying travel ban.

CURB has discussed legalisation with “number of organisations and individuals in order to collaborate and more fully understand the issues”, he said — and will meet “shortly” for further talks.

Past president Cordell Riley said extensive publicity surrounding a more tolerant approach to the drug, especially in the US, must have influenced Government.

“We were coming from the point of view of the law ruining careers with small amounts,” Mr Riley said. “But now the discussion has separated to medical uses, as well as legalisation, which Government has said it’s against. It will certainly help to have a full discussion.”

Internationally, he said, the economic recession had caused “many, many things going onto the table that you wouldn’t normally see”.

Medical uses for the drug would require Government regulation, he said — but “the wider discussion is whether it should be legalised”.

He said many felt that decriminalisation would encourage use of the drug, but added: “I take the view that they’re already doing it.”

With blacks bearing the brunt of the stop and search policy that frequently uncovers small amounts of the drug, Mr Riley said: “Who gets the pass and who doesn’t? That’s where we really need to look.

“The law predominantly affects young black males, but are they ones actually using it? What happens to the white person who doesn’t get stopped or gets a pass?”

Mr Riley said he’d been pulled over for a search three times, adding: “And I don’t fit the 18 to 34 bracket.”

One such occasion had been while he was on his way to work at Westgate prison.

“An officer flagged me down and said he was going to stop and search under the 2003 Act. He had a big grin on his face.

“I told him I was aware of his powers under the 2006 Act or the 2005 criminal code, but not of any under the 2003 Act. That grin very quickly melted away.

“He asked me where I worked — and when I said ‘Westgate’ he answered me: ‘Oh, you’re one of us — you’re free to go’. So what was his reason for stopping me, then? There was no reason at all.”

Mr Riley said his experience was far from unique, and that residents in gang-associated areas where subjected to constant checks by police.

“All of this speaks to the wider conversation we need to have — which is what we were trying to address back in our racial justice programme.”

CURB included decriminalisation in a set of 15 “talking points” in November, 2012, in an effort to inform public discussion prior to the general election.

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Published Nov 12, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated Nov 11, 2013 at 9:33 pm)

Govt seeks dialogue on cannabis

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