In January this year the Jamaican Government tabled the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act, 2015 in that country’s Senate to decriminalise marijuana for medicinal, religious and personal use.
Ramchand, in an interview with Sunday Newsday, said that TT “should absolutely decriminalise marijuana for medical purposes” and pointed to a good argument for decriminalising for personal use in limited quantities. He stressed that for purposes of personal use, the key term was “limited quantities” and people should not be allowed to walk around with “40 marijuana cigarettes” or such quantities as might suggest they were selling.
“I am pretty certain we will get to the point of decriminalisation for medicinal purposes. I think we are getting there,” he said.
In August 2000, Ramchand, then an Independent Senator and UWI lecturer, called for marijuana to be decriminalised for medical purposes in his contribution to debate on the Dangerous Drugs Amendment Bill.
“Well, all those marijuana fields we are burning now, we should seize them, compress the marijuana, start to process it and since we have to do what America says, when they de-criminalise, ‘buss’ the market,” he had said.
In the United States, 23 of the 50 States have legalised marijuana for medical use and three states — Oregon, Washington and Colorado — have legalised the drug for recreational use.
In the 2000 Senate session, Ramchand had also said that while living in Jamaica he had smoked weed to find out what it was like, that marijuana leaves were used to flavour soup at home and that it was even put in cookies, statements for which he received a storm of criticism. In a subsequent sitting, he said he had been exaggerating his familiarity with the drug.
He told Sunday Newsday recently that he wanted to show that social marijuana in limited quantities was not as harmful as rum or tobacco. “I was not advocating that the general population should be smoking ganja,” he stressed.
Ramchand also said Government would have to be careful about decriminalising the drug for personal use in that a lot of compressed marijuana on the streets might not be pure but boosted with harder drugs, or might be even be genetically modified marijuana.
“Decriminalising for social purposes would be hard to administer and control, The thing has got very complicated,” he added.
He said, however, that TT can control medical marijuana and the Government can have it grown and ensure that it was the pure product being supplied by prescription and be used to benefit people with glaucoma, cancer sufferers who would previously receive morphine, and terminally ill AIDS patients.
He said that it was possible that limited quantities of marijuana may de-stress and relaxed someone but that it was unlikely that it could make them any brighter or smarter. Back in September 2013 Chief Justice Ivor Archie, speaking at the opening of the law term, had called for the State to review how it treats with people held with small amounts of marijuana and spoke of the benefits of decriminalisation.
He noted that the economic and social consequences of incarcerating large numbers of youths for possession and/or consumption of small amounts of drugs were immense and noted that TT may be “pushing minor non-violent offenders into criminality when they can be saved.”
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar responded that she was not against Archie’s recommendations but the Government must deal with law breakers. Then Attorney General Anand Ramlogan said that the Government welcomes “healthy debate” on the issue, noting the legal benefits and also concerns that decriminalising could increase marijuana use.
UWI Medical Officer and Head of the Health Services Unit Dr Neil Singh also commented on the issue in an interview with Sunday Newsday. He said that while decriminalisation has its benefits, it should not be done as a short term, stop gap measure to reduce the work load in the local courts.
He said that evidence shows that in countries where marijuana has been decriminalised, such as Portugal, Switzerland and Norway, there have been less court cases and a lot more people are open with their marijuana use. In these countries once a user is charged and fined, he or she is sent to a rehabilitation centre for remedial work. A Forbes magazine article in 2011 reported that10 years after Portugal decriminalised all drugs — not just marijuana — and replaced it with a system of treatment for problem users and addicts, drug abuse had been cut by half.
Singh noted, however, that in Trinidad and Tobago, there were no rehab centres other than at St Ann’s and at Mt St Benedict — and similarly there was no compulsory rehabilitation programme for people convicted for driving under the influence, for example.
“We have to put in place the supportive framework,” he said.
He said that if decriminalised, a “flood of marijuana” users would come out in the open, estimating that for every person held with marijuana there were 100 others out there smoking. Singh said a lot more thought must go into any plan for decrimalising marijuana in TT and systems must be first put in place to have help available for users.