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Towards legalisation - Revisiting the ganja debate
published: Monday | December 22, 2003

The following is an excerpt from the Gleaner Editors' Forum held on November 27. Guests were Dr. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the U.S.-based Drug Policy Alliance, Paul Chang and Paul Burke, members of the local National Alliance for the Legalisation of Ganja:

ON THE POLITICAL EXPEDIENCY OF LEGALISING GANJA, GIVEN JAMAICA'S 'CHRISTIAN CULTURE'

MR. BURKE: Legalisation is a big step, but you will recall in 1978 or '79 there was a Joint Select Committee chaired by Dr. Ken McNeill, and it actually recommended to Parliament that there should be no legal sanctions for two ounces of ganja for personal possession. As you know, we got caught up into the politics of the general election of 1980 and the Parliament never debated that recommendation, but there have been calls for it over the years and I have not heard the Church in any strong, concerted position.

MR. CHANG: The Church's considerations were taken into consideration by the Barry Chevannes Commission and the recommendations came about, the Roman Catholic Bishop, the Rabbi, all the institutions.

MR. BURKE: I think people recognise that decriminalising is not going to necessarily encourage it. One of the things that everybody, whether in the commission's support, whether it is our own comments, is that there needs to be a massive public education programme just about substances, their potential harm, all of those issues. So I think the Church would be concerned if it thought it was going be ­ I think they recognise that people in Jamaica smoke ganja. I think you would know that up to 1972 there was an 18-month mandatory sentence if you were caught smoking ganja and you could not stop Jamaican people smoking ganja, even with an 18-month mandatory sentence.

ON THE MORAL EQUIVALENCE OF LEGALISING OR DECRIMINALISING GANJA AND DOING THE SAME WITH PROSTITUTION

MR. CHANG: I haven't really thought about it. I guess I am a libertarian and prostitution has always been here and always has been and we are not going to change that either.

DR. NADELMANN: The philosophy I spoke of before of harm reduction is a way of thinking about issues like that, about how one deals with the vices, the immoral activities like gambling and prostitution, and I think our bottom line is which policy would result in the least amount of accumulative harm to people. The argument is, if you make it legal there will be more of it going on, and then the question is, is that true? And, if it's true, to what extent is that a price worth paying, if legalisation of prostitution would result in 30 per cent more prostitution than you have today. But dramatically there is AIDS, hepatitis, violence, criminal things, etcetera, then that might be the trade off worth making.

ON HEALTH CONCERNS

MR. CHANG: There are some toxicity levels in terms of marijuana. In terms of all the psychoactive substances, marijuana is the least toxic and most benign.

MR. BURKE: We accept that a lot of the information about ganja was just based on ignorance, but we also accept that all substances can be abused and can be harmful, it depends on the individual, the use of it, their own personal state of mind, their physical condition, their whole metabolism. We make the point oftentimes that some of the people we see smoking ganja most visibly are some of the people who are most aggressive, antisocial in the society. If we believe it is only they who smoke ganja alone, we are making a mistake. You would not expect a teacher to be smoking ganja in public or a bank manager or a professional, but they do.

DR. NADELMANN: In the United States, there is a whole range of organisations that are promoting alternatives to the war on drugs. One of them is called Religious Leaders for Adjusting Drug Policy and these are clergy, African-Americans, white Americans, Muslims, Jewish, Christians. They are not pro-drug in any respect. They are not advocating that people use ganja. What they are arguing is that locking up, arresting in the United States a million-and-a-half people a year, locking up a half-a-million people today, that's not consistent with fundamental principles that they derive from the Bible and from their faith.

ON INTERNATIONAL CONVENTIONS AND POSSIBLE SANCTIONS

DR. NADELMANN: Think about it in terms of three forces. One is the actual international treaties, the 1961 Single Convention and the 1988 International Anti-Drug Trafficking Convention, then thirdly think about the U.S. Government as a political force, and in between think about the UN control agencies, what are called the Commission Narcotic Drugs and then the International Narcotics Control Board or INCB, whose job it is to make sure the treaties are observed. With respect to the first, the biggest consensus is that if the changes in law only involved possession or perhaps the transfer among friends, that is the non-commercial transfer, small amounts, then that does not implicate the treaties.

Secondly, with the international control agencies, basically view them as an extension of the U.S. Government. The Europeans move forward on cannabis, they move forward on the issue of prescribing heroine to drug addicts, pharmaceutical heroine is made in the countries, they move forward on the issue of clean needles to stop AIDS and hepatitis.

ON JAMAICA'S RELUCTANCE TO MOVE FORWARD

MR. BURKE: There is fear of a backlash. I know, also, there is a general confusion as to what really contributes to crime in this country, and I think for a long time the whole marrying of drug money, which is created in effect by keeping the drugs illegal, as against people who want to use substances for their own personal use.

I feel that there has been indifference. They never had a sense of urgency, and really our parliamentarians are responsible for a lot of the social problems that have been created over the years, by keeping ganja illegal. I strongly believe that the decriminalisation is just a step towards legalisation, because with decriminalisation people would still be able to be arrested, detained, harassed, fined, maybe even confined, but at the end of the day you won't have a criminal record, and if that is what is going to happen, I believe that once the momentum starts there will have to be more reforms. So I am willing to live with the decriminalisation as a first step, as an interim measure, as a transitional matter.

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