Waiting for the smoke to clear
As is the case with the word du jour, privatization – and so many other issues that concern Barbadians – the Freundel Stuart administration’s position on the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana remains shrouded in a cloud of smoke.
True, there are basic needs that must be prioritized – management of the economy continues to be a classic lesson in tottery, the currency is under threat, a reliable water supply remains a fantasy for so many. Still, like a niggling headache, the marijuana issue is refusing to go away and is growing in intensity. And there is no reason not to articulate a clear position on it.
We have heard from a small number of Government legislators on the issue, but like privatization, they sing from hymn sheets compiled in their own images and likeness.
Government’s chief legal adviser, Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite remains on the fence somewhat, making it clear in January this year that he holds no strong position on the legalization of marijuana use. Yet, he also said he believes Barbadians should not be jailed for possession of small amounts of the drug.
A year earlier, in January 2014, Government Senator Verla De Peiza said it was past due for Barbados to make marijuana use legal and that she intended to step up the fight for legalization of its controlled use because she had seen its usefulness to society.
Back in June, Minister of Education Ronald Jones told the opening of the Teachers’ Introductory Programme at Erdiston Teachers’ Training College people found with small amounts of the drug should not be jailed.
However, a year earlier, in June 2015, Government backbencher James Paul came out strongly against any form of legalization, vowing to vote against any legislation that might be brought to Parliament in this regard.
With public discussion on marijuana led by the University of the West Indies, and with the debate becoming a shouting match between those who suggest weed will solve all our problems and those who insist it is one of the most destructive and worst things created, the country is craving political leadership on the issue.
Clearly, it has been on the minds of administrators. Why else would the Office of the Attorney General commission a study conducted in December last year on its use? Why else would the Ministry of Health be conducting research into its use of in palliative care, as revealed by Senior Medical Officer Dr Kenneth George last month?
It is time for the administration to tell Barbadians what it intends to do with the information gathered from its own research. Is it considering decriminalizing the use of small amounts? Will it allow ganja use for medical purposes? Or will it, like Uruguay, legalize its use and sale, and impose a tax? And if it does, will it expunge the records of every person ever convicted of a marijuana-related offence here?
We need answers to these questions, but, will we ever be told?
In December 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to completely legalize weed, and from January 1, 2014 Uruguayan citizens and residents could buy up to 40 grammes a month from pharmacies, grow it themselves at home or join cannabis clubs where members pitch in to garden the plants together.
The law’s main intention, according to then president Jose Mujica, was to seize the market from illegal drug dealers, not encourage people to smoke weed. The jury is still out on what was referred to there as The Great Experiment. However, as government opened a registry earlier this year for pharmacists wishing to sell legal ganja, it announced that legal sales would not attract the value added tax.
If Government ever considers a similar move, it should also take a close look at the US state of Colorado where recreational marijuana went on sale on New Year’s Day 2014.
A recent study by the Marijuana Policy Group, a Denver-based economic and market research firm that consults with businesses and governments on marijuana policy, found that the legal marijuana industry contributed US$2.39 billion to the state’s economy in 2015, and has become the fastest-growing business sector in the state.
However, there have been some troubling side effects, of which we must take note.
Figures from the department of public safety show that fatalities among drivers on weed increased 44 per cent in 2014 over 2013, while the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, found significant jumps in use among 18 to 25 year old and an even greater rise among adults over 26.
Hospitalizations with possible marijuana exposures increased from 803 per 100,000 before commercialization to 2,413 per 100,000 after commercialization; emergency department visits, rose from 739 per 100,000 to 956 per 100,000 and the number of calls to poison control mentioning human marijuana exposure was also up.
Since people can grow up to 99 plants in their basements, researchers found that criminals were travelling to Colorado to do just that and sell it for $5,000 a pound in other parts of the country.
If it is legalized here, could Barbados also become a legal cultivation ground for criminals?
In articulating her support for legalization, De Peiza said: We just have to have the courage to accept that there is information out there that can help us.”
She also said: “We have to ask ourselves what do people want? Because as politicians we do have to recognize we’re representing people, therefore we have to be able to focus on what the people want.”
The Government’s study found 30 per cent of Barbadians support some form of legalization, up from ten per cent eight years ago, while 37 per cent oppose, down from 73 per cent.
The information is there. All we need now is political direction.