'Free up the weed' finds favour
Gary Spaulding, Senior Gleaner Writer
There was nothing hazy about the signals coming from Jamaicans that the Government's decision to decriminalise the use of small quantities of ganja was long overdue.
Following years of agitation to 'free up the weed', Jamaicans made it crystal clear they have found favour with current proposals, approved by Cabinet, which when passed in the House of Representatives, will mean that persons held with small quantities of marijuana will not be placed in jail. Cabinet has approved proposed changes to the Dangerous Drugs Act to make possession of 0.057 kilogram or less of ganja a non-arrestable offence. Instead, it will become a ticketable infraction, attracting a fine which can be paid outside the court system.
Most Jamaicans surveyed in a Gleaner-commissioned Bill Johnson poll, prior to the Cabinet approval, expressed the view that police lock-ups are too harsh a destination for smokers of small quantities of ganja.
Eighty-three per cent of the 1,208 persons interviewed on September 6-7 and 13-14 agreed that the Government should decriminalise possession of small amounts of ganja for personal use. It was in late September that Cabinet gave the changes the nod of approval.
The poll, which has a sampling error of +3% or -3%, found that 14 per cent of Jamaicans disagreed that ganja smokers should be kept out of jail and three per cent had no position on the matter.
CALL FOR CLEAN SLATE
Some members of the clergy, including general secretary of the Jamaica Baptist Union, the Reverend Karl Johnson, are at one with the bulk of Jamaicans that the criminal records of persons held for smoking ganja should be cleansed.
A bill to amend the Criminal Records (Rehabilitation of Offenders) Act was debated in Parliament on September 30. The bill makes provision for the automatic expungement of convictions for certain minor ganja-related offences. Where there is a conviction for a minor offence of possession of ganja or for smoking ganja, it shall not be entered on the criminal record of the offender.
Johnson argued that it was unjust for the reputation of smokers of small quantities of ganja to be tainted by a permanent criminal record, which, effectively, barred them from accessing some jobs and places.
The poll, however, found that a lower number of Jamaicans - 59 per cent - felt that the Government should allow small farmers to legally grow small amounts of ganja for sale to those who smoke it.
Another 36 per cent felt that small farmers should not be allowed to grow ganja to feed the habit of the smokers, while five per cent did not express a view.
It has been 13 years since the National Commission on Ganja, which was chaired by the late professor of the University of the West Indies, Barry Chevannes, recommended that relevant laws should be amended so that ganja could be decriminalised for private and personal use of small quantities by adults.
In 2004, a joint select committee of Parliament, chaired by Dr Morais Guy, endorsed the 2001 commission's position.
It was also recommended that ganja should be decriminalised for use as a sacrament for religious purposes and that a sustained all-media, all-schools education programme aimed at demand reduction accompany the process of decriminalisation, and that its target should be, in the main, young people.
Earlier this year, local lobby groups convened an international conference in Kingston, under the theme: "Wake up Jamaica, Our Opportunities are Slipping Away, after they became impatient with Government's tardiness to proceed with decriminalisation as two states in the United States - Washington and Colorado - had taken this route.
The lobbyists came away from the conference with a 12-point declaration outlining the measures they want the Govern-ment of Jamaica to implement as a matter of priority.
The declarations echoed the 2001 commission's recommend-ations. Among them was the immediate expungement of the criminal records of all Jamaicans who have been convicted for possession of small amounts of non-compressed ganja.
Like Chevannes' commission, the conference also wanted full recognition of the sacramental rights of the Rastafari community to use ganja in their homes and places of worship, without prosecution, persecution, harass-ment and or arrest as well as a sustained all-media, all-schools education programme aimed at demand reduction.