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Smoke and mirrors

No vote on cannabis: perfect for politicians, terrible for accountability

On Friday, the House of Assembly passed the most far-reaching drug-liberalisation laws Bermuda has seen in decades.

The Cannabis Licensing Act was passed without a vote, meaning constituents have no idea whether their Member of Parliament was for or against the Bill.

This enables MPs to tell constituents what they think they want to hear, which is perfect for politicians and terrible for accountability. It is to be hoped that the appointed members of the Senate will have more courage.

Tuning in to the debate, an innocent listener could have been forgiven for believing it was about the history of race relations in Bermuda. If the same listener held on until the end, they might have thought it was a debate on the island’s constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom.

But they would have listened in vain through too much — although not all — of the debate to hear about the genuine health risks related to cannabis, or how this change will be managed as a public-health problem in the future.

Remarkably few government MPs contributed to this debate. Both Kim Wilson, the health minister, and Renée Ming, the national security minister, whose portfolios are presumably intimately connected with this legislation, remained silent.

The Minister of National Security might have stated that Bermuda’s attempts to treat cannabis possession as a crime have been as unsuccessful as were the United States’ efforts to prohibit the use of alcohol in the 1920s. She might have argued that, as with Prohibition, the so-called war on drugs needlessly turned otherwise law-abiding people into criminals.

The Minister of Health might have explained how the Government planned to treat cannabis use as a public-health problem like alcohol or tobacco. She, or the Minister of Education, who did speak, might have explained what preventive measures were being planned to discourage young people from using cannabis, when the damage that can be done to the development of adolescent brains is one of the few proven areas of medical research into this drug.

Perhaps the Minister of Youth, Culture and Sport will have more to say on this when the Bill is debated in the Senate; as a drugs counsellor, Ernest Peets has first-hand knowledge on the problems of substance abuse.

Instead, what one Progressive Labour Party MP after another did say was that making cannabis illegal had turned young Black men into criminals, and that this had been part of a deliberate and racially motivated campaign. If this is true, the PLP government of 1998-2012 was a co-conspirator in that effort.

There is no doubt that the consequences of illegality were disproportionately experienced in the Black community. But by framing the debate through a racial prism, the Government made raising any concerns, whether medical, moral or social, seem racist. Hence the reluctance of MPs to reveal their votes.

As a result, what was missing from this debate was any real explanation of what efforts will be made to prevent cannabis usage among the young — for whom it will remain effectively illegal — or to provide rehabilitation for those, perhaps a minority, who do indeed suffer from the ill-effects of the drug.

As with alcohol or tobacco, legalisation has a normalising effect and placing age limits on its use without explaining why is inherently contradictory. Drug-using young people have tortured their alcohol and tobacco-consuming parents for decades with this very contradiction; now that the Government is taking the leap to legalisation, how will it explain it?

Late in the debate, it turned out that there may be a much bigger obstacle to this law than such concerns.

Michael Dunkley, a former premier, pointed out that the Governor may refuse to enact the legislation because it would put Britain in breach of its international obligations. This would presumably include obligations to the International Narcotics Control Board, which monitors international drug-trafficking treaties and has opposed Canada’s decision to legalise cannabis.

Mr Burt, who had made anti-colonial remarks out of the blue just a few days earlier, took umbrage at the idea that Britain would prevent the democratically elected Government of Bermuda from doing what it wanted.

But the Premier must have known that this problem existed. As part of a proper debate on the issue, it should have been raised and aired earlier. It is not secret that the British Virgin Islands, which passed similar legislation last year, had to deal with concerns from the British government and was given a roadmap to meet British and international objections.

Mr Burt has clearly chosen a different route. Why? Mr Burt claimed the PLP’s election mandate as sufficient justification when he spoke to the House of Assembly. But the PLP won 30 seats because of its management of the pandemic, not because of legalisation. The Free Democratic Movement also supported legalisation and did not win a seat.

In fact, Mr Burt does not have the full support of his own Caucus, or, it would appear, his Cabinet.

Perhaps Mr Burt thinks he can ensure support if he is able to turn this into a fight for racial justice and if he can mobilise support against a bigger enemy — the United Kingdom. Or perhaps he sees this as a wedge issue to move sentiment towards independence.

Either way, it does not seem to have much to do with a well thought-out plan for the legalisation of cannabis or how to keep young people safe.

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Published February 23, 2021 at 8:55 am (Updated February 23, 2021 at 8:55 am)

Smoke and mirrors

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