Be more forceful with Britain on cannabis, Canadian expert says
Bermuda could be more “forceful” in its stand-off with Britain over the legalisation of cannabis as the international enforcement of current laws is “tainted by racism”, a leading academic has stated.
Professor William Bogart, who has written extensively on drug-related law issues, said the island would be able to point to the example of his native Canada, where “the world did not come to an end” after sweeping reforms liberalising marijuana legislation were enacted.
The former professor of law at the University of Windsor said the current legal regime disproportionately targeted Black people, leading to convictions triggering travel and employment restrictions.
He said legalisation of cannabis in Bermuda should be accompanied by an amnesty for people with criminal records for involvement with the drug.
Rena Lalgie, the Governor, said in September that she had been “instructed” by London not to give Royal Assent to the Government’s effort to legalise the production and consumption of cannabis because it broke Britain’s international treaty obligations.
Professor Bogart added: “I think that Bermuda could be reasonably forceful about saying, ‘look, another affiliated country, Canada, went ahead and legalised’.
“And I think the weight of the opinion was, technically, we are not in compliance with those drug treaties, and nothing has really happened.
“Bermuda can point to the Canadian experience.”
Professor Bogart, who is on a visit to Bermuda, said that enforcement of cannabis law was weighted against non-White people.
“There is a critical body of opinion that says criminalisation is not working, the war on drugs is not working.
“When Canada said we are going to stick our head out in terms of just this one drug — cannabis — because, we realise that is the way to go for any number of reasons, one of which is the enforcement is tainted by racism.
“There is hard evidence that there is discriminatory enforcement of cannabis laws and weighted heavily against Blacks and indigenous people.
“There are other reasons (for reform), one of which is that criminalisation generates an illicit market run by the criminal element.”
The academic said an amnesty would be needed for people previously convicted of cannabis law breaking.
“People should not have a criminal record for using a substance.
“Too many Blacks and too many indigenous people disproportionately have had their lives blighted because of use of cannabis in a way that a lot of the White population — it didn’t happen, especially if you were upper or middle class. The police left you alone by and large.”
Professor Bogart warned that cannabis, like alcohol, was not a harmless drug.
He said: “This is about ‘permit, but discourage’ — yes, we are rolling back criminal law because we don’t think anybody should have a criminal record for using a substance whether it’s tobacco, alcohol or cannabis, and we will get to the other drugs in the fullness of time.
“But that does not mean that the legislation should be encouraging the use of this drug.
“This is not a harmless drug. This is not saluting cannabis use. It’s saying people will not be criminalised for using it.
“Protection of children has to be at the forefront. Children should not be using this drug.
“You are actually better in a legalised, regulated framework where you do not rely on simplistic notions of ‘just say no’.
“Parents are the standard bearers. Don’t try to tell your kid not to use marijuana when you are on your third martini.
“Legalisation was not about encouraging use of the drug. Legalisation is about not criminalising use.
“But, at the same time, sending the message loud and clear that this is not a harmless drug.
“Once you bring it into the legal framework, it will be like alcohol, and, with all the imperfections of alcohol — alcohol can be a very dangerous drug.”
The British Government’s refusal to give Royal Assent meant that the Cannabis Licensing Bill could not become law.
David Burt predicted last year that such a move would “destroy” the relationship between Bermuda and Britain.
The Premier expressed disappointment in recent weeks at the way the Royal Assent issue had played out.
He said: “What I will say is that democracy in my view must be respected. It was an unfortunate incident.”