BELIZE CITY, Mon. Jan. 26, 2015–Two and a half years ago, our newspaper reported that the Government had established a multi-sectoral committee tasked with reviewing proposals for the decriminalization of small quantities of marijuana, also known as “ganga” or “weed,” with a view of introducing alternative penalties which would mean that casual users do not end up having a criminal record and do not have to spend time behind bars.
On Friday, January 23, a bill was tabled in the Senate in our sister Caribbean nation, Jamaica, proposing the decriminalization of up to 2 ounces of marijuana (just under 60 grams). The 2015 amendment to Jamaica’s Dangerous Drugs Act also proposes the decriminalization of the cultivation of up to 5 ganga trees.
Cannabis possession and use, including the possession of commercial hemp, is prohibited under the laws of Belize. Although we have seen recent cases whereby persons have gotten into big legal trouble in Belize for a single ganga tree, which can be deemed cultivation under our laws and which could attract a stiff fine of $10,000 plus three years behind bars, the Belize proposals do not consider any softening of the laws where ganga cultivation is concerned.
However, the proposals, which we understand may be sent over to Cabinet as early as next week and which should be made fully public not too long from now, recommend the decriminalization of 10 grams of marijuana or less – what we had previously indicated is deemed to be equivalent to 10 cigarette-sized rolls of weed.
On the other hand, the intent is to retain the drug possession charge for quantities between 10 and 59 grams. A trafficking charge would be imposed for larger quantities of 60 grams or more.
We understand that the report of the committee has a section on the medicinal use of marijuana, although the decriminalization recommendations only take into consideration how much marijuana is found rather than the use for which it is procured.
We understand that members of the clergy had indicated to the committee that they felt that repeat offenders should be given stiffer penalties. However, we understand that the committee was considering the marijuana issue as it relates to the “chemical dependency” of the casual user. This, we were told, is why the recommendations include drug rehabilitation programs as well as community service, and fines which could finance programs such as drug rehab.
An official statement which the government issued back in July 2012 said that, “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.”
Whereas the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry has agreed with the proposals in principle, it had indicated that it would support decriminalization for only 5 grams.
The Belize National Teachers’ Union had rejected the proposals and highlighted the need for much more education, study and research of marijuana’s use and effects.
While there is no indication that Belize will adopt the Jamaica model for marijuana decriminalization, we are advised that when Cabinet receives the report from the committee tasked with reviewing the marijuana decriminalization issue, that it will be fully apprised of the latest developments in that country.
The Jamaica Information Service (JIS) reported on Friday, January 23, that the amendments in that country would make the possession of small quantities of ganja, amounting to two ounces (about 57 grams) or less, a ‘non-arrestable but ticketable’ infraction, attracting a fine payable outside of the court, but not resulting in the possessor being burdened with a criminal record. It added that failure to pay the monetary penalty will be deemed a minor offence punishable in the Petty Sessions Court by an order for community service.
However, the legislation prohibits the smoking of ganja in public spaces, subject to specified exemptions, JIS said.
Of note is that last week, during the hearing of the case of Professor Brendan Bain in the Jamaica Supreme Court, a witness complained of the smell of ganga, which was being smoked by prisoners held at the facility’s cells. It was reported that ganga-smoking by prisoners at the Supreme Court had become a common occurrence, while still illegal there.
According to JIS, proposed changes to the laws would facilitate ganja being used for therapeutic purposes, as prescribed by a registered practitioner, or for scientific research conducted by an accredited tertiary institution or otherwise approved by the Scientific Research Council (SRC), and it provides for the creation of a Cannabis Licensing Authority to regulate the proposed hemp and medicinal ganja industry in Jamaica. It also pointed to the liberalization of its use for religious purposes among Rastafarians.
With the report from the Belize committee on decriminalization and the latest developments in Jamaica to consider, Belize’s Cabinet will ultimately decide on the way forward here; for example, whether it will go with the conservative 10-gram model originally proposed or whether it will altogether do away with the marijuana possession charge levied on persons who are found with less than 60 grams of marijuana, in line with Jamaica’s amendments.
What has been clearly expressed, though, is that the Government of Belize is not considering altering the law for marijuana trafficking levied on persons found with 60 grams of marijuana or more.