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'Woefully inadequate' drug prevention programmes lead to rejection of cannabis law

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Senate president Joan Dillas-Wright (File photograph)

Government’s lack of consultation with medical professionals and the “woeful inadequacy” of drug prevention programmes were just some of the reasons Opposition and Independent senators gave for rejecting Government’s bid to legalise cannabis yesterday.

A lengthy debate in the Senate saw the three One Bermuda Alliance senators joined forces with the three independents to outvote the five Government senators to send the Cannabis Licensing Act back to the House of Assembly.

Joan Dillas-Wright, the President of the Senate, cast the decisive vote turning down the bill, which set out a regulatory framework for the drug.

She told the Upper Chamber she could not support legislation that did not satisfy her fears for the island’s young people.

Ms Dillas-Wright, a nurse and former chief executive officer of the Bermuda Hospitals Board, said: “I have seen the result of mothers who have had babies, and have been using either marijuana or stronger drugs.”

She added that she had seen “young boys presenting psychotic behaviours”, some as young as 11.

She told the Senate that doctors and counsellors said they had not been consulted on the legislation.

“I am taken aback – I had been told there was broad consultation.”

Ms Dillas-Wright said she “appreciated“ the Government’s hope for a new economic pillar but said it failed to address the drug’s ”deleterious effects“.

Ernest Peets, the Government Leader in the Senate, defended the legislation as the only chance to regulate an illicit market.

Dr Peets, a drugs counsellor, told the Senate: “I have not met a single drug dealer who does not deal drugs simply for the money. They are not concerned about the health and welfare of the individuals they are selling drugs to.

“They do not care about the product and what it’s doing to their customers.”

Government senator Owen Darrell also defended the Bill, saying there were people with convictions who got turned down for banking services.

Mr Darrell said: “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 than when they were incarcerated.”

He added: “The bill before us today is not a referendum on whether you agree with the consumption of cannabis.”

Mr Darrell said it was a chance to put safeguards over a “rampant illicit cannabis market” and described how cannabis dispensaries in other countries were well run and regulated.

Other Progressive Labour Party senators gave support, with Lindsay Simmons saying protection for young people potentially exposed to cannabis would “evolve”.

Arianna Hodgson said the Opposition had failed to offer substantive alternatives on how the legislation could better serve the people.

She said there was no evidence that a regulated cannabis regime would result in an increase in consumption.

She added: “If you don’t use it, it’s not because it is illegal; it is because you don’t want to.”

Curtis Richardson, another PLP senator, called the Bill “progressive” and said regulation was key, presenting opportunities for “all Bermudians”.

He added: “If we don’t do anything, it is the worst thing we can do.”

But the Opposition roundly opposed the Bill, starting with Ben Smith, the Opposition Leader in the Senate.

Mr Smith said he had been disappointed at the lack of debate from Cabinet ministers in the House of Assembly, where backbench MPs had a free vote but no roll call was taken.

Mr Smith said the US “stop list” barring drug offenders had not been addressed, and that the legislation had the potential of increasing criminality.

Mr Smith said regulating cannabis came at significant expense that other jurisdictions had not been able to cover through tax revenue, while the cost of running a cannabis operation under the legislation was prohibitive.

“It is a corporate cannabis bill,” he said. “In five years we will see who the future Gosling family is for cannabis.”

Opposition senator Robin Tucker estimated it would take $250,000 to start a recreational cannabis business.

“Who has that type of money?” she said. “Certainly not the everyday person.”

Ms Tucker added: “The most concerning thing to me is that this legislation offers little to almost no real tangible protection for children, persons with mental illnesses or addicts.”

Marcus Jones, another Opposition senator, described the effects of cannabis on young people as “astronomical”.

He said it was Government senators’ responsibility to persuade the Upper House the legislation would tackle the black market, and make the industry accessible.

Mr Jones said the Bill had not shown how it would protect young people from a drug that had “decimated the Black family”.

Michelle Simmons, the independent vice president of the Senate, said there was a mixed message in having “government agencies established to provide drug prevention, and now we have a new government programme for the licensing activities for a drug industry”.

She said she supported medical cannabis use but questioned backing recreational use.

The former Berkeley Institute principal said she had first-hand knowledge of the detrimental effects of cannabis on young people, while Bermuda’s drug prevention programmes were “woefully inadequate”.

Independent senator John Wight highlighted “major concerns”.

He added: “I have seen no projections on the revenue side of the equation. It doesn’t align with the fragility of Bermuda’s economy.

“The time to put values ahead of politics is now.”

Mr Wight said he was not willing to compromise the health of the population for a limited few to benefit financially.

He added: “Reconsider this bill and prioritise the science and health of our community above all else.”

Independent senator Michelle Simmons (File photograph)
Independent Senator John Wight: (File photograph)
Government Senate leader Ernest Peets (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Opposition Senate leader Ben Smith

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Published March 04, 2021 at 8:31 am (Updated March 04, 2021 at 8:31 am)

'Woefully inadequate' drug prevention programmes lead to rejection of cannabis law

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