Tread carefully on marijuana – NCSA

With the debate over the decriminalization of marijuana raging in Barbados, one institution involved in the fight against substance abuse has called for serious consideration to be given to how a change in the laws governing ganja use would affect society.

Speaking after a service to mark the start of Drug Awareness Month at the Church of God on Chelsea Road, Manager of the National Council on Substance Abuse (NCSA) Betty Hunte said: “This is something that has engaged us for quite some time. Clearly everyone is looking at the Jamaica experience before we take steps towards actually saying if there is need for the status quo to change, but we have to approach this carefully and systematically.”

Betty Hunte

In February 2015, Jamaica’s legislature voted to amend the nation’s cannabis laws, which resulted in possession of up to two ounces of marijuana becoming a ticketed offence that does not result in a criminal record. The Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act, popularly known as the Ganja Law, also makes provisions for the granting of licences as well as the establishment of a regulated industry for ganja for medical, scientific and therapeutic uses.

The Jamaica government is also taking steps to develop a medical marijuana industry.

“I think the emphasis has been on economic gain from the legalization, getting into medical marijuana, as they call it, but there is also the other side. We should look at the social impact very carefully before we decide whether we are changing the status quo and how we go forward on this whole marijuana issue. My personal concern is that we must have the infrastructure in place to support any change at all,” Hunte said.

Stressing the need to have the right systems in place, the NCSA head added: “Right now we are about to address the whole issue of abuse of legal substances, and our health partners have told us about the challenges they face with some of the legislation in place, which perhaps needs strengthening or needs enforcement. So these are some of the elements that, in my view, need changing in our approach to substance abuse”.

Meantime, Hunte reported that the NCSA’s Drug Treatment Court’s pilot programme set up last year was a success, with 12 clients passing through. Twenty more came on board last July for the second phase, which is aimed at people convicted of non-violent drug offences who request treatment for their drug problems.

She also disclosed that a new counsellor, Dionne Bowie, had come on board with the organization recently and she would be dealing specifically with drug abuse within schools.

Hunte noted that the most recent secondary school surveys had found that children were being exposed to drugs and drug use at younger ages, adding that NCSA was particularly concerned about the number of girls becoming involved in that lifestyle.

She stated that from the next academic year, the NCSA would again carry out surveys in the primary schools to determine the extent of drug abuse at that level.

The Council will also be taking a more systematic approach to assisting other agencies involved in the fight against drug abuse. Hunte said these organizations focused on reintegrating into society, former substance abusers who often faced the dual challenges of stigma and discrimination as they tried to get back on their feet, and often those agencies did not have the financial wherewithal to carry out their programmes effectively.

She noted that the NCSA is working closely with the Centre For Counselling Addiction Support Alternatives (CASA), and has worked in the past with Verdun House and Teen Challenge, both of which are trying to reestablish themselves.

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