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Beware the politricks of smoke and mirrors

Social issue: we should not let election-year politics mislead us into thinking that amending our cannabis laws is going to magically transform the lives of thousands of black people

As is the case with every election, over the next 12 months voters should expect both the One Bermuda Alliance and the Progressive Labour Party to do everything possible to win their vote. Not only will they be clawing at each other’s necks, but they will also be promising everything from the moon to the kitchen sink. This is the nature of the beast, so voters need to be ever-vigilant and scrutinise what is laid before them.

Cannabis is one such election-year issue, and the OBA announced plans to decriminalise possession of small amounts in its last Throne Speech on November 7. It should be noted, however, that the Cannabis Reform Collective completed its report in April 2014. This means that the OBA has sat on this issue for almost three years.

The PLP’s Reply to the Throne Speech also contained a promise to table a Bill for decriminalisation of small amounts, and last week it announced a plan to decriminalise possession for seven grams or less. What is important to note here is that the PLP sat on the issue for the 14 years it was in power.

One problem I have with election-year politics is that it frequently is disingenuous and manipulative. For example, PLP MP Diallo Rabain, recently claimed that blacks were being disproportionately criminalised by a racist justice system. While that much is true — that blacks are being disproportionately criminalised — he used smoke and mirrors to support his point.

Rabain pointed to 2015 arrest figures showing that out of 2,651 arrests, 2,284 were blacks — 86 per cent. Such a high number is incredibly alarming. But what Rabain did not make clear, probably deliberately so, is that those arrest figures are for every type of criminal offence; not only cannabis possession.

Rabain also avoided making any comparison with previous years. As one observer noted, the number of arrests in 2010 were double — 5,082 — the number of arrests in 2015. So, if one was to make a superficial argument that the number of arrests determines how racist a society is, then an argument can easily be made that black males were more at risk under the PLP.

The public should also note that although the PLP claims to have campaigned on the issue in 2012, its manifesto contains only the most vague reference to reforming drug laws. It should also be noted that in 2014 the PLP proposed a 20-gram possession limit, whereas now it is proposing seven grams. With such a massive drop, I have to wonder how much research and thought, instead of lip service, it is giving to this issue.

Both parties need to take a close look at the same 2015 report, which shows that the number of arrests for all domestic drug offences is 200. More importantly, the Bermuda Judiciary Annual Report 2015 and the Bermuda Drug Information Network Report indicate that somewhere between 60 and 68 cases for possession of cannabis actually ended up in court.

More questions need to be asked about this data. For example, how many of these cases are for repeat offenders? Also, how many are purely for possession as opposed to cases where a person is stopped/arrested for assault, burglary or impaired driving instead, and is found in possession of cannabis?

Common sense should tell us that there are logically different policing, and thus judicial, outcomes for people who peacefully consume cannabis in the privacy of their homes versus people who openly consume it in public or are otherwise engaged in antisocial behaviour. Similarly, there will be different outcomes depending on the type of household and their attitudes towards drugs and alcohol consumption.

The simple point here is that it is all too easy to dish out vacuous barbershop stories about how thousands of black males are being targeted by a racist criminal justice system. Further, as was the case in prior elections, we should expect politicians to attempt to score cheap points by engaging in superficial discussions about race, justice and inequality.

The downside for the public is that while politicians want us to focus on how they will save us from cannabis convictions under a racist criminal system, they are diverting our attention from far more pressing issues, such as 92 per cent of the 2,651 arrests not being attributed to drug crime.

Yes, the 86 per cent arrest rate for blacks is reason for great concern. But that must be viewed within the broader context of participation in all criminal activity.

I have no logical justification for alcohol consumption being legal while recreational cannabis use is demonised and outlawed. While we really do need to do something about our antiquated drug laws, we should not let election-year politics mislead us into thinking that amending our cannabis laws is going to magically transform the lives of thousands of black people.

Bermuda’s social problems are obviously far bigger than cannabis, and both political parties need to address the real issues with sincerity instead of opportunism.

•To reach out to Bryant Trew, e-mail: bryanttrew@mac.com