Removing records may not be enough for ganja activists

Removing records may not be enough for ganja activists

BY BALFORD HENRY Observer senior reporter

Sunday, June 16, 2013

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THE Cabinet has approved a proposal to amend the Criminal Records (Rehabilitation of Offenders) Act to, among other things, provide for the automatic expungement of certain minor offences, including smoking marijuana (ganja).

But from the looks of things, that will not be enough to appease the local ganja coalition's desire to have the weed decriminalised and the laws repealed.

Attorney-at-law Lord Anthony Gifford, a co-founder of the local body, the Ganja Law Reform Coalition (GLRC), believes that it is a human rights issue which has the support of the majority of Jamaicans, and Jamaica's hosting of the first International Cannabis Conference (ICC) at the Jamaica Conference Centre, downtown Kingston, September 25-28, should greatly assist the process.

"The prohibition of ganja is offensive to my belief in human rights and fundamental freedoms," Gifford told a press launch on Friday for the September conference, which is being sponsored by the New York-based Open Society Foundation (OSF), which was founded by the global investor and philanthropist George Soros with a view towards creating more tolerant societies.

Although successive governments have failed to implement a recommendation for decriminalisation, which was included in the report of a National Commission of Ganja appointed by the PJ Patterson administration in 2001, they have always expressed empathy with Jamaicans, especially young people whose future has been blighted by ganja convictions.

The commission said that, after reviewing the most up-to-date body of medical and scientific research, it was of the view that "whatever health hazards the substance poses to the individual -- and there is no doubt that ganja can have harmful effects -- these do not warrant the criminalisation of thousands of Jamaicans for using it in ways and with beliefs that are deeply rooted in the culture of the people".

"Besides, there is growing evidence that the substance does have therapeutic properties," the commission, chaired then by the late University of the West Indies (UWI) professor Barry Chevannes, also stated.

The Bruce Golding administration also sought to address the issue during its four-year term, setting in motion plans to transfer cases involving possession of small amounts of ganja to the petty sessions court.

Minister of National Security and Justice in that administration, Delroy Chuck, told Parliament in November 2011, that persons held with as much as eight ounces of ganja could have their cases referred to the petty sessions court for adjudication, while cases of more flagrant and indiscriminate use would continue to go to the Resident Magistrate's court. He said that this was a calculated attempt to increase efficiencies in prosecuting and treating drug offenders.

The issue of criminal offences for using ganja was brought up in the Senate nearly one year ago by Opposition members, Arthur Williams and Tom Tavares-Finson, both attorneys-at-law, who expressed concern about the number of young men who have established criminal records for using ganja in relatively minute quantities.

Senator Tavares-Finson told the Senate that his information was that as many as 300 young men per week were being found guilty of using the weed in the RM courts, which was affecting their access to gainful employment, their joining the security forces, or emigrating.

Minister of Justice Senator Mark Golding responded that his ministry was reviewing the laws relating to their criminal records, and would also be looking at the issue of automatic expungement of cases involving small quantities of ganja, as a result.

Ministry Paper #32, tabled in Parliament, recently, confirmed that the Cabinet has approved a proposal to amend the Criminal Records (Rehabilitation of Offenders) Act or, inter alia, reduce the 'rehabilitation' period from two phases to one phase, provide for the automatic expungement of certain minor offences and exclude certain serious offences from record expungement.

"The proposed amendment would see a reduction of the time persons have to wait to qualify for their records to be expunged, thereby improving their chances, among other things, of obtaining gainful employment.

But, Lord Gifford has indicated that speeding up expungement is not enough, and that the coalition will be seeking, ultimately, the repeal of the criminal laws affecting the use of ganja in Jamaica.

"We need to mobilise opinion, and I think Jamaican opinion is very favourable on the whole issue of the legalisation of ganja, but we need to get up, stand up, stand up for our rights," Gifford said.

"The Government has shown some sympathy to some decriminalisation measures and expungement from criminal records but, as in all things, things don't happen until the people move and this conference will be a valuable tool for agitation," he added.

A non-user of ganja, Gifford told the launch at the Spanish Court Hotel, New Kingston, on Friday, that his interest in the subject, which started in the United Kingdom, and has followed him to Kingston, is conditioned by human rights activism.

According to him, the Charter of Rights protects Jamaicans from a number of the abuses which occur when the police pursue persons using ganja.

He said that while practising in the courts, every day he sees dozens of persons, particularly unemployed young people, brought before the court for "smoking a spliff", which ends up destroying their lives.

"All for the possession of something that, from all the evidence, moderate responsible use causes no harm," Gifford stated.

According to Paul Chang, chairman of the GLRC, the coalition is encouraging similar organisations in the Caribbean to join up with Latin American countries that have become convinced that US policy against the growing and use of drugs, like cannabis/ganja, which are traditional among their populations, is not in their best interest.

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