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Alfred McPherson | Don’t allow ganja abuse

Published:Sunday | June 5, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Alfred McPherson
A Rastafarian smokes marijuana during a march in the Corporate Area in 2014.

It has been little over a year since the much-anticipated amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act were passed into law in April 2015 with much attendant fanfare.

It is fair comment that a year is a relatively short period to critique and/or proffer any fair assessment of the legal perspective of cannabis as it relates to the current situation without offering a historical perspective on the one hand, and an anticipatory perspective on the other.

From the historical perspective - are the amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act of Jamaica, now known as the Dangerous Drugs (Amendments) Act, 2015 a poignant and ripe illustration of too little too late, or perhaps too much too soon? With some of the attendant misconceptions as to the real meaning and impact of the amended legislation, it is possible that the truth lies somewhere in the middle of the two spectrums mentioned.

The use of cannabis (ganja) in Jamaica has been illegal since about 1913. The illegal status of this weed was immortalised, as it were, with the passage of the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1948, which for many years has been regarded as an aggressive piece of legislation. Add to that perception - it being a woefully outdated and effective piece of legislation in the realities of modern Jamaica in the 21st century.


Temporary high


The debate as it relates to the illegality of ganja possession and/or use has raged for decades! Like the use of the spliff, it has been rolled around, ignited a fire, and produced a temporary high for those who thought that the debate would result in something tangible, and the reduction to mere ashes when the reality set in that nothing would change.

With all the attendant debate that ganja usage has ignited over the several decades, it is almost startling, if not unimaginative, and lacking in legislative creativity, that the amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act in 2015 mirror almost identically to the letter the recommendations of a joint select committee established by the Michael Manley government in 1977.

Some 39 years ago, that very group recommended, inter alia, that ganja should be decriminalised in the following circumstances:

1. Personal, private use by adults.

2. Use as a sacrament for religious purposes.

3. Possession of up to two ounces for personal consumption in a private setting.

4. Use for medical purposes.


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The Richard Nixon War on Drugs that had its genesis in a 1971 proclamation effectively meant that the United States president would have none of the Manley initiative. Therefore, the recommendations of that joint select committee were unceremoniously and hastily stored in the archives from 1977 until it re-emerged in the early 21st century.

The National Commission on Ganja was yet another significant initiative. It was born in November 2000 and, as part of its mandate, held exhaustive and wide-ranging consultations and inquiries from that date until July 2001, in order to arrive at the very same conclusions that the joint select committee had promulgated back in 1977!

Admittedly, the Report of the National Commission on Ganja which was presented on August 7, 2001 under the stewardship of the brilliant Professor Barry Chevannes (deceased) was detailed and far-reaching in its research, reasonings, and ultimate recommendations. Despite the depth, however, the reality is that in essence the same basic recommendation remained unaltered as those promulgated by the ancient committee back in 1977.

That it took another 14 years before a presiding government had the grit and attendant testosterone to pass these recommendations into law is in itself shocking.

One of the major external challenges faced by Jamaica with the passage of the amended legislation is that it is signatory to the 1961 United Nations (UN) Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, as well as being a signatory and/or active participant in many US-led initiatives on the War on Drugs. Jamaica, therefore, had to be cautious in effecting legislation that will not abrogate its international treaty obligations.

The legislation was, therefore, crafted to decriminalise ganja in specific circumstances and not legalise ganja. This has led to wide-scale public misunder-standing of the tenor and ambit of the legislation, and there is an urgent and immediate need for sustained public education programmes to properly sensitise the public on the decriminalisation of an illegal substance, which at first sight, appears to be contradictory in terms.

The government of the day needs to move with alacrity in launching public education programmes in an effort to dispel misconceptions. Without this, the resultant effect may be an aberration of the concessions which the amendments seek to address.


Self-fulfilling interpretations


The concerns expressed by several individuals and interest groups with respect to the amendment prior to same being passed into law are as poignant now as they were then, and it will take careful and considered crafting of appropriate regulations to ensure that the tenets of the amendments are not lost in a maze of self-fulfilling interpretations and potential abuse.

It has always been of great concern to many citizens, in particular the adult population who take the job of parenting seriously, that this country has no laws on the statute books that expressly prohibit the use of alcohol by minors in public and/or private places.

As a matter of fact, it is our good fortune that we are not beset with a serious alcohol addiction problem among the teenaged population. Alcoholism has the potential to wreak as much havoc on the young minds as the use of ganja for recreational purpose does. There are advocates who will advance the view that alcohol is particularly more dangerous than ganja usage.

It is argued by individuals opposed to the new liberal approach that there is a patent contradiction in terms wherein it is no longer a criminal offence to be in possession of/or use an illegal substance. I am of the view that the amended legislation seeks to carefully delimit the circumstances and groups that will not be potentially guilty of a criminal offence as it relates to ganja use and/or possession. It is a narrow band of circumstances that could benefit a large body of potential offenders and will, therefore, operate to ease the burdens on an otherwise overburdened justice system.

It is absolutely ridiculous in this enlightened age for a young person, in fact, any person, to have a criminal record for life as a result of the possession of small quantities of ganja. From my vantage point, all hail to the amended legislation in this regard.

There is the view that the decriminalisation of ganja will lead to greater accessibility and abuse of the substance by youths, particularly in the 11-19 age bracket. A survey on drug abuse conducted sometime in 2006 for this age group concluded that the use of alcohol accounted for 71 per cent of cases of abuse, while the use/abuse of ganja accounted for 24 per cent. The arguments are that the legal nature of alcohol use accounted for its greater abuse over ganja usage because of the criminal sanctions for the latter. Therefore, it is now likely that the decriminalisation of ganja will result in greater use and abuse by teenagers.

I am not certain if the statistics above-mentioned are correct. Abuse is a problem that has to be effectively treated and dealt with, and I doubt that lumping a criminal record on the shoulders of the abuser is achieving a rehabilitative path. It will be sad if more youngsters abuse ganja or any other prohibited substance, but the imposition of a criminal record and/or incarceration is not going to solve the problem.

- Alfred McPherson is dean of the Faculty of Law, University of Technology, Jamaica. Email feedback to