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Caricom commission recommends lifting marijuana ban; AFC “not interested in decriminalisation but in alternative sentencing”

Caricom Secretary General, Irwin La Rocque (centre)

The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Marijuana Commission has recommended the decriminalising of marijuana possession, but the Alliance For Change (AFC)- one of Guyana’s governing coalition partners- says it does not want penalties to be removed altogether from the law books.

Hours after CARICOM Secretary General, Irwin La Rocque announced in Jamaica that the Commission has recommended that marijuana possession should no longer be a crime and should be classified as a controlled substance, AFC Leader, Raphael Trotman said his party still prefers to see a situation in which the amount is linked to the severity of the penalty.

Trotman, himself an Attorney-at-Law by profession, reiterated that the Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances Act must be amended to give magistrates flexibility in sentencing persons. “While we are most interested in reading and analysing the report from the Caribbean Community, the AFC is not interested in decriminalisation but in alternative sentencing that gives a court a discretion rather than having to impose the obligatory three years for 5 grams and more,” said the AFC co-founder and leader.  For example, he said, someone with seven grammes of marijuana could be jailed for three years while a person with 70 kilogrammes could get the same sentence. “Something is obviously wrong there and we are interested in re-aligning the law,” he said.

Leader of the Alliance For Change, Raphael Trotman

Referring to the CARICOM Marijuana Commission’s recommendation that marijuana possession should no longer be a crime, the AFC Leader said “each jurisdiction has to craft laws for its own individual circumstances.”

Asked why marijuana possession should still be a criminal offence, Trotman argued that there is insufficient data at this time to make a firm decision without the necessary studies that his party intends to push for. “Personally, I believe that cannabis sativa is still a drug that has to be restricted in given instances. Perhaps we need to explore more its medicinal application but to simply “open the door” from an uninformed position as to its social and health impacts would be unwise and this is why more study is needed and the AFC will push for these studies as laws and legislators must adapt with changes in societies

La Rocque  said the 10-member Commission weighed in on, among other things,  the lengthy jail terms for marijuana possession that led them to their overall decision. “In essence, they are recommending the decriminalisation of marijuana. They are recommending it be deemed to be a substance that is controlled and managed as alcohol,” he said. “One thing that I read in the report that stands out so much is that there are in some member states where the penalty for a small amount of marijuana is sometimes more than for some of the other more heinous crimes that are being committed. Now, how can that be…It just defies logic”, he said.

The CARICOM Secretary General said the Commission was wary of concerns raised about marijuana use by young persons.  “There is some concern about controlling it in terms of youth and adolescent use. There is some concern about driving under the influence- all of the concerns that normally attend to what obtains for other controlled substances such as alcohol,” he added.

Alliance For Change parliamentarian, Michael Carrington (standing)

AFC member of parliament, Michael Carrington’s almost three-year old  proposed amendment to the Narcotics and Psychotropics Substance to remove mandatory jail terms is yet to be debated in the House, apparently because A Partnership for National Unity is largely reluctant to do so. Trotman said the AFC has indicated to Cabinet that it is ready to go ahead with the legislative amendment, but now much rests on the Ministry of Public Health.

“We have indicated to Cabinet our readiness for the discussion and are awaiting a report from the Ministry of Health and also the personal perspectives of the Minister herself who recently, along with other prominent public officials recently visited the US on a study tour to assess alternative methods of sentencing. We are optimistic that we can find consensus with our coalition partner for legislative reform and hope to do so before the end of 2018,” he said.

The AFC  in late May ratcheted up its call for softer penalties for non-custodial sentences for marijuana possession after 27-year old Carl Mangal was sentenced to three years imprisonment for being in possession of less than one ounce of ganja. Through Attorney-at-Law, Nigel Hughes, he appealed the conviction and was granted GY$40,000 bail by the High Court.

The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Camp Street Prison Disturbances and Resultant Deaths on March 2 to 4, 2016 has recommended that judiciary, magistracy and legal sector “decriminalize possession of minimum amounts of marijuana for personal use”.