Facts at times just cannot be ignored

In an inherently conservative country such as Barbados where people generally display an automatic tendency to resist, as an emotional response, any issue that raises the idea of change, the decriminalization of marijuana is, admittedly, a touchy subject.

Emotions can have such a powerful impact on human behaviour that in adopting this approach, persons hardly ever see the wisdom of taking time to engage in a dispassionate examination of the pros and cons to arrive at a rational conclusion on the issue to inform the way forward.

Against this backdrop, advocates of the decriminalization of marijuana open themselves up to the possibility of being accused, especially by persons who have developed an inflexible opposition to the use of weed under any circumstances, of seeking to open the floodgates for anyone to become a “dopehead” with legal sanction.

Barbadians taking this stance would have generally grown up in an era when, based on the information to which they were exposed, they would have come to see marijuana as totally undesirable, in much the same way that Rastafarianism with its association marijuana use was initially viewed in the 1970s and 1980s.

But mainstream thinking on marijuana around the world has changed dramatically in recent years. Interestingly, the move towards decriminalization originated in developed countries which, through the information they made available, helped to condition the thinking of people in developing countries such as Barbados in relation to marijuana.

However, authorities in these countries are saying now that marijuana use, for medicinal purposes, is really not so bad after all. While we have difficulty supporting the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes, we believe the convincing evidence of medicinal benefits calls for Barbados to adopt a more open-minded approach, especially at the policymaking level.

In the design of public policy, personal bias of decision-makers should have no influence whatsoever on the outcome. The foremost consideration should always be what is in the public interest, what is the right and proper thing to do, based on the hard evidence. Even though marijuana remains illegal in Barbados, consumption over the years has grown so phenomenally that it is now
an inescapable fact of everyday life.

At a panel discussion on the subject last week at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, it was revealed that almost half the population had tried marijuana and one in four persons smoked it regularly, according to a survey conducted for the Attorney General’s Office last December. That translates into a quarter of the population who use marijuana on a regular basis, according
to pollster Peter Wickham.

Peter Wickham
Peter Wickham

What does this information tell us? Among other things, that official efforts to contain the use of marijuana, beginning especially from the 1970s, have generally been a failure, even though efforts to reduce the supply have reaped some success based on the size of frequent drug seizures. What has really compounded the challenge for the authorities is the fundamental shift in public attitudes towards marijuana since the 1970s.

Whereas older generations of Barbadians frown on marijuana as “dope”, younger Barbadians do not see it negatively at all. The official policy on marijuana today is the basically the same as it was 40 years ago.

Clearly, what is needed now, to reflect the changing reality, is a comprehensive new policy on marijuana, dealing not only with its use for medicinal purposes but also for recreational. Does it make practical sense any more to be jailing so many young persons for having just a spliff?

These are questions which should be fully discussed in a national conversation led by Government. In any review of the official policy position not only on marijuana but also other drugs, there is need to engage the general public so that their input can help shape whatever decision is finally taken. The recent survey confirmed that a growing number of Barbadians are leaning towards decriminalization of marijuana, representing a significant shift in public attitudes over the past seven years.

In crafting a new policy which effectively addresses the new reality of the issue, what must be borne in mind is that there is a good side and a bad side to marijuana use. The good side is reflected in the medicinal benefits in relation to certain illnesses. The ugly side is seen in the altered personality and behavioural changes which unfortunately happen to some persons.

The hard facts cannot be ignored. An effective marijuana policy, the kind which Barbados now needs, is one which aims to strike a balance, in the public interest, between what is good and what is bad.

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