Opposition senator raises questions about clause in ganja law
Debbie-Ann Wright, Gleaner Writer
OPPOSITION SENATOR Tom Tavares-Finson is questioning whether the justice minister will have to be summoned each time a person claiming to be a Rastafarian is stopped by the police for possession of ganja.
He made the query as he contributed to the debate on the Dangerous Drugs Amendment Act 2015 yesterday in the Senate.
Senator Tavares-Finson noted that, under the bill, the justice minister can declare an event exempt from public smoking prohibitions if he is satisfied that the promoter is an adherent of the Rastafarian faith.
The bill also grants special exemptions to Rastafarians who are using marijuana as part of a sacrament or who are cultivating it for such use.
But Senator Tavares-Finson expressed concern that the justice minister was being given too much discretion in the matter, especially in the absence of a definition for the word 'Rastafarian' in the law.
The opposition senator noted that the requirement for the justice minister's approval would be problematic on an operational level.
Giving the example of a traffic stop during the night in which a person possessing ganja claims to be a Rastafarian, Senator Tavares-Finson questioned how such incidents would be treated.
"Who is going to make a determination as to who is a Rasta? Are they going to call Minister (Mark) Golding out of his bed to come and determine who is a Rastafarian?" he queried.
In opening the debate, the justice minister had stated that the restructuring of the penalties for ganja possession recognises the special position of the Rastafarian community in relation to ganja. Senator Golding said the exemptions being granted to them were in respect of their constitutional rights to express their beliefs through the use of ganja as a sacrament.
WILL CREATE INEQUITY
But Senator Tavares-Finson argued that the bill, as it stands, could create inequity instead of promoting respect for the rights of all Jamaicans as is intended.
"You are putting Rastafarians in a position where the minister of justice has to determine whether or not you are a Rasta, and having so determined, he is going to give you a licence to keep a dance, but a next man, because he is a deejay or following up a sound system or dancehall, he can't smoke ganja in his dance," Senator Tavares-Finson lamented.
"Are we not putting another group of persons at a disadvantage?" he asked.
The Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act 2015 will make the possession of up to two ounces of ganja a non-arrestable offence.
Instead, possession of such small quantities would be a ticketable infraction, attracting a fine payable outside of the court.
Failure to pay the fine would be deemed a minor offence punishable in the Petty Sessions Court by an order for community service.
The legislation prohibits the smoking of ganja in public spaces, subject to specified exemptions.