General — 19 July 2012 — by Adele Ramos
Belize moves to decriminalize marijuana
“…the proposal is not to legalize the offence, thereby purging it of all its penalties; it is merely to reduce and regulate.”  - ex-police minister, Doug Singh
 
The Barrow administration has appointed a committee to look into proposals for the decriminalization of marijuana in Belize. That committee, announced late this evening via a Government press release, is headed by Doug Singh, former Police Minister, who told Amandala this evening that they want to create a distinction between the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana by creating a special category of infractions for the possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana—that is equivalent, said Singh, to about 10 sticks of weed.
  
Other members of the marijuana decimalization committee are Donelle Hawke and Rhea Rogers of the Ministry of National Security, C.B. Hyde, Susan Fuller, YaYa Marin-Coleman, Jeremy Spooner and Katie Valk, said ex-Minister Singh. He told us that two of the committee members are admitted marijuana users.
   
The committee wrote two weeks ago to about 16 entities, including the Bar Association of Belize, the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Belize Council of Churches, and gave them until Friday, July 13, to provide feedback—but none has to date, said Singh. He told us that the group will now be calling up these entities to request their positions on the decriminalization proposals.
  
The wider public, who are just being asked for comments this evening via the press release, will have the next four days to submit their feedback to the proposal. Their deadline is Friday, July 20.
  
“The Committee recognizes that the instant proposal for the decriminalization of small quantities of marijuana is a sensitive issue,” said the Government release.
  
When we asked Singh why the short deadline for public feedback, he said that most people already know their positions on the matter and so he does not anticipate they would require much time to formulate their response. If the public feedback shows a sharp polarization in public opinion, he said, the committee would hold a public meeting to discuss the matter. It is possible for the decriminalization to take effect by the end of the year, Singh furthermore indicated.
   
The discussion has not touched on the use of marijuana for medical purposes, since that would open the debate to at least partially legalizing the drug, said Singh, in response to our query on this dimension of the debate.
   
He also indicated to us that consideration is being given to concerns over public smoking and smoking around children. The legislation would have to address smoking in public, and particularly around children, as well as possession in schools, he told us.
   
A press release issued by the Government this evening clarified that, “For the purpose of this exercise, the word decriminalization means that the treatment of the infraction will be adjusted so that most of the detriments are removed or reduced.”
   
Pointing to international trends towards decriminalization, the release said probationary measures would be proposed as an alternative.
   
“It is also proposed that no criminal record be kept in the first instance and portions of the penalty be reserved for drug education,” the release added.
  
Singh told us the National Drug Abuse Control Council (NDACC) will be the likely entity to do the drug education program, and a portion of the fines levied for marijuana possession would be earmarked for that program.
   
The Government informs that “current legislation treats the possession of under 60 grams of marijuana as a criminal offence and is punishable by a fine of up to $50,000 and/or up to three years imprisonment.”
   
It added that, “This proposal is to decriminalize the possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana, which will then be subject to fines, mandatory drug education and no imprisonment.”
   
During the national budget debate held in Parliament last week Wednesday, former Prime Minister Said Musa called out the authorities for “going after people for stick of weed…,” but Prime Minister Dean Barrow took issue with him raising the decriminalization issue during the budget debate. “Are we going to get into debate on whether we should decriminalize marijuana?” Barrow retorted.
   
During the wrap-up of the debate Thursday night, Barrow again took aim at Musa, saying, “What was most instructive was his formula for solving the crime and violence problem in Belize; legalize marijuana; that is what the ex-prime minister came up with as his sole policy prescription for solving crime and violence. Legalize marijuana.”
  
The press release issued this evening stated that, “The committee wishes to emphasize that the proposal is not to legalize the offence, thereby purging it of all its penalties; it is merely to reduce and regulate.”
   
According to Singh, the marijuana decriminalization committee is about two months away from submitting its draft paper to Cabinet. If Cabinet approves the document, it would be channeled via the Ministry of National Security to the Attorney General’s Ministry, which will draft the legislation. The draft laws will have to go back to Cabinet for vetting before being handed up to the National Assembly for passage.
   
Government said, “This initiative is driven by increasing evidence that the current legislation clutters the courts and the prison with primarily a marginalized segment of our population. The added impact of a permanent criminal record further disadvantages this already marginalized group as it establishes a barrier against meaningful employment.”
   
Amandala wanted to know what the data are saying. Singh said, however, that he had requested statistics on the number of inmates in prison for minor marijuana possession charges; however, the Kolbe Foundation, which operates the prison, has not yet provided that information.
   
Singh went on to say that the fundamental principle is that this should be looked at as a substance abuse issue. He commented that only the people at the lowest levels of society tend to get caught with marijuana possession and that is unfair.
   
Public comments are invited by Douglas Singh, Committee Chair, to email address: decriminalizebelize@gmail.com; or mailing address: # 1 Mapp Street; Belize City, Belize.
   
Government also informed that “…if you wish to make representation to the committee, please indicate in your written response and we will be pleased to accommodate your request.”

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