Analysing the senate debate on cannabis
Let's summarise the viewpoints of our dear senators and explore their arguments.
The below quotes have been attributed to the senators by The Royal Gazette.
Joan Dillas-Wright (President of the Senate):
“I have a major concern about our young people, our children, and so I will say to you while I appreciate what the Government would like to do with this Bill today, the Cannabis Licensing Act is about creating another pillar in this island and not speaking about the possible deleterious effects.”
I believe these fears are unfounded. Why would a Bill that allows only those over 21 to participate be denied on the grounds of another group who are excluded from participating altogether? Ms Dillas-Wright spoke on the negative effects of drugs, but couldn’t seem to distinguish the impacts of drugs on babies. Further, her anecdotal evidence observing mothers who had multiple drug use is inadequate to sufficiently distinguish the impacts of each of the substances the mother may have been taking. Studies on the impacts of prenatal use of cannabis by mothers did not result in birth defects. No statistician will say that it would be possible to distinguish the impact of taking cannabis in combination of other drugs, legal and illegal. The evidence, at best, can only show association/correlation and not causation.
Refer to the below extract from the Reproductive Health Journal:
“From a psychiatric perspective, cannabis withdrawal syndrome has been described in newborns , although other authors have been unable to prove the existence of negative perinatal effects in children whose mothers used cannabis .
“There are few review studies suggesting prenatal exposure to cannabis may be associated with mood and behavioural alterations, that could be related with affective mental disorders, and depressive symptoms, as well as ADHD [19, 31,32,33,34]. There are no studies that establish a connection with the presence of psychotic disorders .”
Michelle Simmons (Vice-President of the Senate):
“Is it a drug that we should advise people not to use, since it causes both physical and mental impairment?”
I agree that cannabis causes impairment in larger doses as does cough syrup, anaesthesia, sleeping medication and legally available alcohol. Humans and animals have sought altered states of consciousness since the beginning of time. Further, cannabis chemicals interact with receptors in the brain and body that bio-regulate systems within the body. The CB1 receptor is located in the brain and is triggered by THC while the CB2 receptor is triggered by CBD and is contained in the body. The impact of impairment is never respiratory inhibition, as seen with opioids owing to the lack of cannabinoid receptors in the brain stem. There have been a whopping zero deaths from cannabis; therefore, the anecdotal evidence used to justify opposition to the Bill is invalid. The endocannabinoid system creates the body’s own cannabis neurotransmitters called anandamide and 2AG. The senator is arguing that cannabis is dangerous and should not be regulated, but ignores the science that the body produces its own cannabis. If it was that dangerous, why does the body produce its own?
Perhaps, her main concern was over cannabis grown in the homes of people. Maybe the cannabis will grow legs and murder children as they sleep. Maybe they would get high if they eat the leaves and buds? Cannabis is totally non-psychoactive until it is mature, cured and heated to deoxycarbolyse it. Before then, any THC contained in the flowers of the mature plant are locked up as THC-A. You can juice the whole plant and would never get high. You could eat the mature plant and not get high. In fact, it would be very good for you as THCA and CBDA are all antioxidants. You would be making the most healthy smoothie of your life. It would fight cancer cells and make you lose weight. Don’t believe it? Google Pubmed.com articles for yourself.
“There is a great interest in the pharmacological properties of cannabinoid like compounds that are not linked to the adverse effects of Delta(9)-tetrahydrocannabinol, eg, psychoactive properties. The present paper describes the potential immunomodulating activity of unheated cannabis sativa extracts and its main non-psychoactive constituent, Delta(9)-tetrahydrocanabinoid acid. By heating cannabis extracts, THCa was shown to be converted into THC. Unheated cannabis extract and THCa were able to inhibit the tumour necrosis factor alpha levels in culture supernatants from U937 macrophages and peripheral blood macrophages after stimulation with LPS in a dose-dependent manner. This inhibition persisted over a longer period of time, whereas after prolonged exposure time THC and heated cannabis extract tend to induce the TNF-alpha level. Furthermore we demonstrated that THCa and THC show distinct effects on phosphatidylcholine specific phospholipase C activity. Unheated cannabis extract and THCa inhibit the PC-PLC activity in a dose-dependent manner, while THC induced PC-PLC activity at high concentrations. These results suggest that THCa and THC exert their immunomodulating effects via different metabolic pathways.”
Anandamide deficiency is a real disorder. Lack of anandamide predicts stress-inducing anxiety behavioural reversal through endocannabinoid augmentation. This study shows that lack of cannabinoids causes an ability to handle stress.
“Stress is a major risk factor for the development of mood and anxiety disorders; elucidation of novel approaches to mitigate the deleterious effects of stress could have broad clinical applications. Pharmacological augmentation of central endogenous cannabinoid signalling may be an effective therapeutic strategy to mitigate the adverse behavioural and physiological consequences of stress.”
I believe that individuals taking cannabis are self-medicating and there is a strong justification for allowing this under the United Nations treaty even though the science has not caught up to the research.
Ernest Peets (Government Senate Leader):
“I have not met a single drug dealer who does not deal drugs simply for the money … they do not care about the product and what it’s doing to their customers.”
I agree that an unregulated illicit market attracts a degree of fraud, as seen with individuals selling CBD flower as normal cannabis and the practice in Britain of dusting cannabis with crushed glass to give the appearance of being more potent. I believe that testing and adequate labelling of cannabis products will alleviate the harms decried by the senators more than the status quo could ever do.
Owen Darrell (government senator):
“There are young men in this country who have used small amounts of cannabis, get caught, are sent to jail, paid their debt to society – only to enter society with more shackles on then when they were incarcerated.”
I agree with this statement. No policymaker should ever make public policy based on hypotheticals. Actual hard, cold evidence is the only currency of good decision-making. The genuine harms of cannabis are less than alcohol or tobacco. Refer to the study by Professor David Nut to the British Government. How immoral is it to punish people for using something that’s beneficial to their health?
Arianna Hodgson (government senator):
“If you don’t use it, it’s not because it is illegal; it is because you don’t want to.”
I believe there’s a constitutional argument to be made with regards to the Rastafarian community with the right to freedom of expression and the right to life. If someone believes cannabis to be a health product critical to their health, how can any policymaker justify preventing them from using it?
Refer to the South African, Mexican and St Kitts constitutional challenges where the courts agreed that it is unconstitutional to penalise someone for consuming or growing cannabis in their own homes.
Curtis Richardson (government senator):
“If we don’t do anything, it is the worst thing we can do. This government is acting on what has been asked, and is responding responsibly.”
What Bermuda is attempting to do is revitalise our tourism product, provide opportunities for Bermudians to enter a global commodity trade and reduce the amount of Bermuda dollars that get shipped overseas purchasing cannabis. We can also engage individuals who are on the fringes of society, providing a service to willing customers by regulating their product and ensuring proper storage and testing for contaminants.
John Wight (independent senator):
“Reconsider this Bill and prioritise the science and health of our community above all else.”
I have not heard any coherent argument from the senator. His verbal arguments were about the youth who are excluded from participating in the regulated scheme. In addition, his position as chairman of BF&M leads me to believe his concerns may be more focused on the potential increase in traffic accidents as a result of impairment. I agree this is a risk, and offer the following response with regards to impairment by cannabis.
Refer to the extract from the Pubmed article on the impact on driving of Cannabis v Alcohol.
“Drunk drivers are involved in 25 per cent of motor vehicle fatalities, and many accidents involve drivers who test positive for cannabis. Cannabis and alcohol acutely impair several driving-related skills in a dose-related fashion, but the effects of cannabis vary more between individuals than they do with alcohol because of tolerance, differences in smoking technique, and different absorptions of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Detrimental effects of cannabis use vary in a dose-related fashion, and are more pronounced with highly automatic driving functions than with more complex tasks that require conscious control, whereas with alcohol produces an opposite pattern of impairment. Because of both this and an increased awareness that they are impaired, marijuana smokers tend to compensate effectively while driving by utilising a variety of behavioural strategies. Combining marijuana with alcohol eliminates the ability to use such strategies effectively, however, and results in impairment even at doses which would be insignificant were they of either drug alone.”
This means that people who are drunk drive faster and people who are high on cannabis drive slower. I’m not sure that is a bad problem to have. Ideally, no one would drive after consuming cannabis, so there would need to be strict enforcement and education for people who consume edible cannabis outside of their homes or leaving a retail shop intoxicated. Science has caught up with regards to testing, as previously blood tests were used that could not show impairment. The Bermuda Police Service will have to refine their sobriety test procedures to cope with cannabis, although in all fairness, considering the amount of cannabis consumed in Bermuda, they should already know how to test for sobriety for all substances.
Ben Smith (Opposition Senate Leader):
“The millions and billions of dollars brought in by California, Colorado and Canada have not been able to cover the cost of the regulation. Bermuda is a much more expensive jurisdiction.”
I agree the staffing for the authority should not be new hires, but redeployed staff already employed by the Government. This is hardly enough of a reason to vote no against this Bill, as these minor details could have been worked out after its passage.
Mr Smith also commented about the youth being a consideration in his “no” vote. I would like to assure him that no one is taking signals from the Senate. Because the youth, especially, are technologically advanced, they are more educated with regards to emerging research than our older generation. Because of the disconnect between the narrative of the bogeyman and the reality where youth who smoke cannabis are seen to be cool and better-adjusted, most of the youth assume whatever is coming from the Government is a lie. That may explain why some do not take warnings about cocaine and heroin seriously — because they tried cannabis and found it to be benign. Maybe it is time to stop the “reefer madness” and open Pubmed to update our knowledge before we talk about a subject.
Marcus Jones (opposition senator):
“My brother and I were raised in the home of a single parent who watched our community be decimated by the use and misuse of illegal drugs.”
I take exception to the comments regarding the soil and climate for growing cannabis as wholeheartedly false. If this was the case, the BPS would not have an interdiction programme during the growing season of March-September every single year. Further, Mr Jones cannot distinguish the impacts of cannabis v alcohol, cocaine or heroin in his example of his friend who used to take multiple drugs. His anecdotal information is hardly scientific, nor does it acknowledge that no study to date can establish causation for cannabis use and psychosis. The association between people with mental health problems is easily explained in the impacts of anandamide deficiency in humans.
Robin Tucker (opposition senator):
“This Bill gives Government control of the local cannabis industry. Government becomes the primary dealer and encourages people to be in a business that has negative impact on our Black families.”
I believe that Robin Tucker did not read through the Bill because it clearly decentralises the supply of cannabis to licensed individuals. At no point in the Bill does it say that the Government becomes the primary dealer. I implore Ms Tucker to sufficiently scrutinise the Bill before commenting on its content.
I am extremely disappointed at the anecdotal hypothetical arguments put forward by our appointed and opposition senators. I believe that now more than ever, it is more critical to stimulate the economy. The question is, if not now, when? How would these senators’ fears be alleviated if their fears are not based on the science? We continue our advocacy towards a regulated cannabis market and will work to educate our senators where their opinions are unfounded.
Let’s explore the argument of the breach of international treaties.
The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Substances requires member states to restrict cannabis to medical use or research.
The origins of global drug policy go as far back as the 1800s when the British Government was selling opium to China in an effort to weaken its society. Fast forward to 1961 when the UN met and finally passed its great work, the Single Convention, which was further edited in 1971, ratified in Britain and passed down to the Overseas Territories in 1972.
From reading the treaty, it is clear that the intention was always to consider drug addiction to be a health issue as seen with Resolution II.1, which declares “that one of the most effective methods of treatment for addiction is treatment in a hospital institution having a drug-free atmosphere".
The implementation of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1972 has never been about treatment, but incarceration and fines. This has never yielded the intended results, and in fact can exacerbate many drug problems because hard drugs are rife in Bermuda's prisons.
Further in the treaty:
Article 2 (5b)
A party shall, if in its opinion the prevailing conditions in its country render it the most appropriate means of protecting the public health and welfare, prohibit the production, manufacture, export and import of, trade in, possession or use of any such drug except for amounts which may be necessary for medical and scientific research only, including clinical trials therewith to be conducted under or subject to the direct supervision and control of the party.
The creation of the Cannabis Licensing Authority was in compliance with Article 23 (applied to the paragraph on opium by article 28)
Article 33: possession of drugs
The parties shall not permit the possession of drugs except under legal authority.
Decriminalisation contravened the treaty, but why was that given assent by the British Government? Regulation better adheres to the treaty. Why was the treaty sited as potentially being breached by implementing a regulated market?
Article 49 (which allows use of cannabis for non-medical purposes)
1. A party may, at the time of signature, ratification or accession ,reserve the right to permit temporarily in any one of its territories:
(a) The quasi-medical use of opium
(b) Opium smoking
(c) Coca leaf chewing
(d) The use of cannabis, cannabis resin, extracts and tinctures of cannabis
for non-medical purposes
(a) The activities mentioned in paragraph 1 may be authorised only to the extent that they were traditional in the territories in respect of which the reservation is made, and were there permitted on 1 January 1961."
This was the argument made by the Attorney-General that cannabis use was popular at the time of this treaty and has been since then until now.
"The use of cannabis for other than medical and scientific purposes must be discontinued as soon as possible but in any case within 25 years from the coming into force of this Convention as provided in paragraph 1 of article 41."
One must ask the question whether or not the UN was acting in the public interest. Cannabis was listed on Schedule IV along with heroin, fentanyl, morphine and derivatives. A substance with zero global deaths is hardly companion with substances that can literally stop a person breathing.
The British Virgin Islands may gain assent after all, so the question remains: what exactly in the tabled Cannabis Licensing Act needs to change in order to get past the Senate and Governor?
• Michael Brangman is a cannabis campaigner who has been working since 2008 to reform Bermuda’s policy on cannabis to be in line with research