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Cannabis policy input pleasing, says DPP

Striking a balance: Larry Mussenden, the Director of Public Prosecution (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

The Director of Public Prosecution’s call for public input on a caution policy covering simple possession of cannabis has elicited a “pleasing” range of responses thus far.

However, Larry Mussenden told The Royal Gazette he did not see the move as “crowdsourcing — or a vote, either”, on a legal shift with profound implication for police as well as the public.

“We have to strike a balance. A caution policy has to be understood by the public, young and old,” he said. “The Commissioner of Police and his officers must be able to administer it efficiently and effectively.”

The DPP’s decision to solicit views for a fresh look at police cautions, as a possible alternative to convictions, was announced on May 19, and it continues until June 10.

Bermuda’s move away from a court proceeding for simple possession, which the DPP said was in keeping with global trends, has been long coming.

Its announcement in October 2010 by Mr Mussenden’s predecessor, Rory Field, was applauded at that time by the island’s legal fraternity. It just as quickly stalled.

Such was the delay that, two years on, the Centre for Justice took the DPP’s office to court, charging that the lack of a detailed policy violated the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 2006.

“I can’t speak for the previous director,” Mr Mussenden said when asked about the delay.

“The particular section in Pace that the Government authorised was not brought into force because of some other issue in that same section. Parliament has now supported it, and now we are able to put it into effect.”

Convictions or conditional discharges for quantities of cannabis as little as a fraction of a gram emerge regularly from Magistrates’ Court, but tend to be poorly received by the public.

Offenders risk not only a blemish on their record and a travel ban through the notorious “stop list” policy of the United States.

Lawyers warned back in 2010 that automatic court appearances frittered away police time, and needlessly criminalised the young.

“I have been a defence lawyer for a number of years,” Mr Mussenden said. “I’ve heard stories from people who had a lot of issues when it came to their careers because they have a conviction, and also with travel — and these stories are pretty alarming.”

However, just one week into the window for submission, the DPP declared himself gratified by the range of responses, short and long.

Reiterating that no decision has yet been made, Mr Mussenden said he had been stopped in the street by people with views, which he urged them to put in writing.

He did not specify whether this open approach might be applied to other policy considerations.

“Online news and the ease of communication makes it a good chance to seek the public’s input,” he said.

In the process, Mr Mussenden has canvassed agencies such as the Ministry of Education, the Department of Corrections, the Criminal Defence Bar and the Department of Youth, Sport and Recreation.

Some in the public sphere have renewed the call for the decriminalisation of cannabis — an issue outside the DPP’s remit. The 2016 Pace amendments apply to cautions only.

“In our department, we’re responsible for the prosecution of crime where the evidence supports a charge, without fear or favour,” Mr Mussenden said. “But all right-thinking members of society are keen to see a reduction in crime as well.

“They are equally keen to see young people graduate from high school, go to college if they wish to, and have successful careers. Dabbling in a controlled drug at a young age is not the best way of achieving those things.”