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First step in levelling cannabis playing field

Recently, while sitting in the barbershop, the topic of decriminalisation came up. As one of the newest MPs, I can easily recollect recent history of knocking on doors where this topic was raised at many homes. So I was keen to engage in the conversation to see where these young men’s minds were at on the topic.

The conversation centred around how unfairly targeted by the police they felt as black males, especially when it came to small amounts of cannabis. Every single person knew of a friend or family member who had been subjected to prosecution in the past for “a spliff” and now found themselves on the stop list, unable to travel to the United States without a travel waiver. While the stories were different, the result was the same.

I had to agree with them on most points, especially the arrest assumptions. Data supports blacks being more disproportionately criminalised by our justice system. The most recent crime statistics released by the Bermuda Police Service for 2015 show that there were 2,651 arrests made. Of these, 2,284 were of black people. In a country where black people make up 60 per cent of the population (Census 2010), they also comprised 86 per cent of all arrests, while white persons were arrested 219 times — or 8 per cent of all arrests.

From all the numerous reports that have been written — from the Pitt Report in 1978 to the Mincy Report in 2009, to the One Bermuda Alliance-commissioned Cannabis Reform Collaboration Report in 2014 — the plight of our black population being unfairly criminalised and disenfranchised has been highlighted. The Cannabis Report in 2014 went as far as to point out specifically the disproportionate effect that cannabis-related offences have on the black community.

We must, with a degree of urgency, look at ways how we can address these institutional, structural and systemic issues of racism that plague our youth. One starting point the Progressive Labour Party has identified is the decriminalisation of cannabis.

In 2014, the PLP tabled such a Bill, which we were not afforded the chance to debate. In our Throne Speech Reply of 2016, we committed to seeing this through and in 2017 we will lead the way for this much needed reform.

The discussion around cannabis and its use is a conversation that has been around for some time now. There have been studies on the topic done worldwide and, as recently as April 2014, a study approved by the Bermuda Government, The Cannabis Reform Collaborative, was conducted and presented recommendations — one of which recommended the immediate decriminalisation of up to ten grams of cannabis. This report was tabled in the House of Assembly and debated in May 2014. The Premier stated during the Cannabis Report debate, specifically on the report recommendation for immediate decriminalisation, “... this is not an easy choice and in the coming weeks and months the Government will consider this policy point in detail before returning to this House with any legislative change”.

I refer to the One Bermuda Alliance throne speeches of 2014 and 2016, which both mention that consultation is still needed in respect to this topic. The OBA response to the PLP’s announcement this week to table a Bill to decriminalise up to seven grams of cannabis was met by a predictable response from the Government, effectively repeating its stance for the past three or more years: “... We need to consult more ...”

As the weeks and months since May 2014 have passed and the OBA remains in consultation mode, the Premier should just admit that the Government has no intention of decriminalising cannabis any time soon.

Our country needs to better use our limited financial and personal resources to combat crime and gang violence. Use of these resources to arrest and charge our citizens for small amounts of cannabis is not the greatest use of these resources by a long shot. The time to fast-forward past consultation has long passed; it is now time for action. Action is needed to alleviate our citizens from being criminalised for minor cannabis possession and the Bill proposed by the PLP will do just that.

While the OBA is content to continue to “consult” on this issue indefinitely, the PLP has decided: enough is enough. There are already young men and women who find themselves on the short end of the stick from a minor indiscretion in their youth. These are things that we do not need to consult anyone to know. Any politician who consistently knocks on doors and canvasses will no doubt hear these types of stories at first hand from those who are living it.

The time for endless consultation has ended and the time for action is now. This Bill to decriminalise small amounts of cannabis is but one of many steps that is desperately needed to move towards levelling the playing field for all our citizens, especially those who feel the brunt of a system that systematically fails them.

All PLP MPs support this Bill and I hope that some OBA members will vote “yes” in support of this reform.

Diallo Rabain is the Shadow Minister of the Environment and Planning, and the MP for Devonshire North Central (Constituency 13)