Features — 28 October 2017 — by Audrey Matura-Shepherd
RIGHT TO THE POINT: The herb … the ten grammes myths

“AN ACT to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act, Chapter 103 of the Substantive Laws of Belize, Revised Edition 2011, to decriminalize the possession of cannabis in amounts not exceeding ten grammes, to provide for the imposition of monetary and non-recordable penalties for the possession of cannabis in such amount occurring on the school premises, in specified circumstances, to decriminalize the smoking of cannabis on private premises; and to provide for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”

The above is the preamble to the proposed amendment being made to the Misuse of Drugs Act, Chapter 103, which has stirred such grave debate and heated arguments to the point of name calling amongst friends and virtual friends on social media! I opine there is no need for that as each is entitled to their opinion and own personal choices. However, there is no need for that since those so-called debaters are talking at each other and not with each other and thus are not able to soberly discuss the issues and handle the actual contents and purpose of the proposed legislative amendments.

However, a look at and careful reading of the stated purpose of the amendment from the preamble cited above gives a very unequivocal and concise objective of the amendment.

Decriminalize marijuana

It is a fact that it is very misleading for anyone to say that the purpose is to legalize the possession and use of marijuana because to legalize carries a very specific connotation, yet the legislation specifically says “decriminalize”. Looking at the definition of both words brings some clarity to the matter at hand.

Legalize, per the Oxford Living Dictionary means “to make (something that was previously illegal) permissible by law.”

It is also the opposite of illegal. Thus to legalize cannabis means that it is no longer illegal or criminal and as such no need to worry about “test and charge”. However, the word decriminalize means “to remove (an action) from the legal  category of criminal offence.” Both words are almost similar but has a difference that can simply be stated by saying that to legalize means it is not unlawful, but to decriminalize means it is no longer a criminal act.

However, whether you understand the nuances of the two different words, it matters little, except that it must be made clear that the amendment DOES NOT make the possession or use of marijuana legal because it is still a criminal offence to possess and use marijuana.

Ten grammes of marijuana

However, what the amendment does is create a false sense that the illegality of the possession and use has been removed. This is far from so. Rather if you care to read the detailed amendments you will realize that the legalization of ten grammes is even more misleading, since it’s not really absolutely legal to have in your possession ten grammes. The wording is as follows:

“7 (7) where the controlled drug in a person’s possession is cannabis or cannabis resin in an amount of no more than ten grammes and –

(a) the circumstances are not as specified in subsection (8) then, notwithstanding section 10, the possession is not unlawful and an offence is not committed thereby.”

Reference to Section 7(8) is addressing where the possession occurs on the premises of an educational institution. Thus, if you are found in possession of up to ten grammes of cannabis anywhere other than an educational institution that will not be an offence. There is no stipulation as to how many times this can occur, thus it appears for as many times as you are found in possession of not more than ten grammes, you do not have to worry about being arrested and charged. This distinction is important since subsection (7) of section 7 speaks to two circumstances, the first being anywhere as cited above and the second being on the premises of an educational institution.

In an attempt to dissuade the carrying of cannabis at educational institutions, I opine, there is some level of criminal culpability assigned to the circumstance where the person is in possession of no more than ten grammes of cannabis, but this takes place on the premises of an educational institution. In this particular circumstance per section 7 (b)(i):

“the person contravenes his subsection, but subject to subsection (10) [I think this is an error as there is no subsection 10, I think the drafters meant section 10] is not liable to be arrested or detained but may, on the first occasion of such contravention be liable to a warning from the police, and on a second or subsequent occasion the provisions of violation ticket regulation made under section 29A shall apply, whereby the offender is liable to being issued with the prescribed violation ticket by an authorized officer requiring the violator to pay a fine of one hundred dollars or such other amount in substitution therefore as may be specified in the violation ticket regulation, which amount shall be clearly stated on the face of the violation ticket.”

Simply put, if you have possession of not more than ten grammes, it could result in arrest. However, on the first occasion that the person has cannabis on the premises of an educational institution, he may only get a warning, but thereafter on the second and other occasion he can get a ticket and fined. This is done to ensure that this controlled drug is not brought to school. What is interesting is that the possession of ten grammes becomes subject to different treatment based on where you are in possession of it.

Minor’s access to ten grammes of marijuana

There is another aspect to the proposed legislation as it deals with the situation of minors being caught in possession of the very same ten grammes. In such case, it does not say that the minor commits an offence, yet by virtue of his/her age, he/she is required, it seems mandatory, to participate “in a drug treatment or drug counselling programme approved by the Minister, and with such financial contribution being payable by the person or his parents or guardians, as the Minister may determine.”

There is surely wisdom in seeking to dissuade minors from taking on such a habit at such an early age, but this is done at the financial strain of the minor and his parents. This is untenable, because often the minors who would be most affected are those whom are already marginalized in a socio-economic background and as such the payment of any expense is, in and of itself, a penalty of some sorts. Thus it seems the most penalized population would be the minors since they must comply with treatment as a result of possessing not more than ten grammes of marijuana, but worst yet, if they are found with it at the premise of their school, they can even end up getting a ticket which they must pay.

Fortunately, for possession of not more than ten grammes of cannabis, no matter the circumstances or the tickets, will not form a part of the criminal records. This is critical, since too often the problem confronted by many youths, is that they plead guilty to this small quantity, which becomes part of their criminal record, and this has grave repercussions in relation to their chances of employment and applying for visas, scholarships, fellowships or any such opportunity.

Also, from a strictly legal point of view, it is rather disheartening to see how too often our young men are at court or in prison for a “stick of weed”. For many this will be a reoccurring reality as they are a regular user of the “herb”. However, now once they are in possession of no more than ten grammes, they will not have to worry about being dragged through the legal system each time he smokes his weed!

The effect on each

I know the debate will rage about the moral, legal, economic, and political aspects of this amendment and really there are many dimensions worth discussing, especially since to get ten grammes someone must plant it and supply it and these acts remain criminal offences. It is ironic that I can legally possess ten grammes, yet the man who planted the tree and supplied me the ten grammes remains a criminal under the law. More on that at some other time.

The biggest reason given for the sustained criminalization of cannabis, aka, marijuana, aka, weed, aka the herb, etc. is that it cause its users to commit crimes and it damages their health, specifically their brain cells and in men their sperm count. Now, I must say I have been conducting my own survey and have had to deal with several persons who have used it regularly, thus I note that marijuana has different effects on different people and it is surely NOT for all. It is exactly like alcohol, which has varying level of impact on its consumer. Some drink and get mellow and other get violent… the use of marijuana is the same. Some people should never drink in their life because of how it makes them act, likewise some should NEVER use marijuana.

I recently dealt with a young man who claimed he committed the murder as a result of a drug-induced psychosis. He already had schizophrenia and smoking the herb exasperated the situation resulting in hallucinations which led him to kill his good friend. This is not the norm and should not be used to justify criminalizing marijuana. Rather, I suggest the responsible thing to do is for each to determine if it is compatible with them or not. Not because alcohol is now legal, it means that everyone is a drunkard. Everyone must find out for themselves first if it is agreeable with them, if they wish to become a user, if not, then there is no need to worry or try anything… you gone clear!

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