Cannabis and regional law reform

After many decades of the criminalisation of cannabis, most regional states, as a consequence of lived experience, additional information and not a little mimicry, are now prepared to buck their international commitments made under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 and to relax the degree of its prohibition in certain cases.

One such reform has been to grant permission for the consumption of the substance for religious or sacramental purposes, a matter that has recently been put into statutory form in Barbados. We commented on some aspects of this legislation here last week, noting its provision for the strict official oversight of the fundamental right of religion; its seeming conversion of what is primarily an individual right into a collective right, and its apparent prioritisation of cannabis over tobacco, by permitting the smoking of the former in public places while vetoing the identical consumption of the latter.

There is another notable anomaly in this legislation. For example, under Clause 7 (1)(a) of the Bill, the Minister is empowered to impose conditions on a sacramental use permit, including one that the permit holder- “secure the cannabis from public access and visibility”. To us, this suggests a grudging approach to the recognition of Rastafarianism as a religion by legalising its adherents’ sacramental use of cannabis but at the same time, keeping such manifestation away from public view.

And yet, one can feel some sympathy for the architects of the legislation. While there is, locally, a discernible groundswell of general public acceptance for the implementation of a medicinal cannabis industry, this is less so for the recreational use of the substance while the public sentiment of the sacramental use exemption cannot now be gauged with any certainty. Hence the cautious official approach in this last context of limiting the public manifestation of the sacramental usage so as not to encourage others who do not share the same belief system.

In similar vein, Clause 14 (1)(d) stipulates, “no person shall permit or allow a minor to use cannabis as a sacrament”. Again, this appears to be a restriction on the Rastafarian religion that, to our best knowledge, is not imposed on others, but one that is perfectly understandable, given the cautious nature of the legislation. In this light, the permitted use of the substance at a public event betrays an acute dissonance. We have already expressed our view on what this initiative is likely to mean for the incidence of purely recreational use.

Our neighbouring jurisdiction, Trinidad & Tobago, has also sought recently to reform its cannabis laws. They have gone the route of the virtual legalisation of the possession and use of 30 grammes or less of cannabis and the cultivation of 4 male plants at one’s residence.

Possession of over 30 grammes but less than 60 grammes has been decriminalised only; in that culprits will now be liable to a fixed penalty ticket system with the further possibility of the imposition of a community service order if the ticket is not paid.

The smoking of cannabis in a public place and its possession in a school or on a school bus are criminally prohibited and it is unlawful to drive or operate a motor vehicle aircraft or ship while under the influence of the substance. Notably, there is also provision for the expunction of the criminal records of presumably those who were formerly convicted of the now legalised and decriminalised offences.

With other regional jurisdictions enacting similar legislation, it seems clear that the Caribbean has now determined that it will paddle its own canoe out of the waters of that 1961 conference at which none of its members had individual state representation.

Barbados Advocate

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