Head of Caricom Commission calls for change in cannabis laws

Monday, November 19, 2018

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ROSEAU, Dominica (CMC) — Chairperson of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) Commission on Marijuana, Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, has called for a change in the region's cannabis laws, as the majority of Caribbean governments continue to urge caution on the way forward.

Addressing a national consultation on cannabis here Friday, Belle Antoine said following the Commission's two-and-a-half-year public consultation she had now taken a firm position on the matter.

“... I would say I was sitting on the fence … but I want to say upfront that now that the work has been finished and we prepared the report and sent it off to the Caricom heads of government, I want to say emphatically that I am not sitting on the fence anymore, and after reviewing all of the evidence, looking at all of the laws, listening to people in the region, I am personally committed and quite clear in my mind that the law needs to change,” she said, adding that this change could be through legalisation or decriminalisation.

“I personally feel it should be legalisation,” she said, noting the health and economic benefits.

However, while acknowledging the advantages of changing the laws, Dominica's Minister of Health Dr Kenneth Darroux sounded a note of caution.

“Recent research driven evidence on the medicinal properties of and use of marijuana, especially in the treatment of chronic pain management and neurological disorders cannot be ignored, and I daresay must be a central part of the ongoing discussions. This, coupled with the historic religious use of the good herb by certain religious and cultural groups of our society, lends strong arguments towards its declassification and even decriminalisation.

“On the flip side, however, one cannot deny the multitude of compelling and overwhelming evidence of psychological and psychiatric disorders intricately linked to the indiscriminate use of marijuana. And the potential social ills that could result in the ad hoc liberation of the plant must be soberly and objectively factored in the discussion,” Darroux said.

Dominica's National Security Minister Rayburn Blackmore echoed similar concerns, telling the audience there is need to consider the support systems to be put in place “to support a society where the legal status of marijuana may be changed”.

“We must as a mature people remember that while the uses of marijuana is being legalised worldwide, we must never forget that our realities do not mirror the realities of first world countries in many respects. It is therefore imperative that we create a path that is tailor made to the unique needs of Dominica,” Blackmoore said.

President of the Dominica State College, Dr Donald Peters, added there were still other matters to be taken into consideration.

“We know that CDB, canabidiol is one of the extracts found in marijuana which has proven to (give) therapeutic relief for pain in patients, mainly chronic pain. THC is the chemical that causes the high to individuals and has been associated with memory impairment and addiction,” he said.

“We also know the use of marijuana is still illegal in most countries around the globe. It is still illegal in Dominica (and) it is illegal in 191 out of 193 countries that comprise the international community. In fact in 20 countries around the world one can be punished by execution for selling marijuana.

“Every sovereign state has to deal with its own policy on the use of cannabis. The new dynamic brought on the Uruguay and Canada, those decisions will impact the use of marijuana globally, including Dominica,” he noted.

However, Belle Antoine argued that the existing laws are unjust and discriminatory.

“When we sit down to make law…it should be to correct some wrong in society. And if law doesn't have a true purpose, or if the laws themselves produce wrongs then they offend the rule of law.

“It was fairly recent the 1930s that these laws came in. Before then it was just like another blunt. There was no problem, so what was the reason that it became unlawful or illegal? That I think was important, especially because it became criminalised. For most of our history it wasn't, but then it was criminalised,” she said.

Additionally, she noted, there has also been an marked increase in public support for a change in legislation around the region.

“In Barbados, in a very short space of time public opinion for those who want law reform grew to over 63 per cent in 2017, and I believe it's higher now, from below 30 per cent just three years before. In Grenada it was 61 per cent in 2018 and 62 per cent in Antigua. It's actually reached the 90s in Jamaica since they changed their law.”

“For me, one of the most stirring images I had in all of these consultations was in Barbados a group of individuals with disabilities, in wheelchairs, many of them were women but they were mainly elderly individuals who came to the public consultation… and they begged us please please change the law so that they can get access to medical marijuana. It was very poignant.”

Belle Antoine, the dean of the faculty of law at the St Augustine campus of the University of The West Indies, nevertheless voiced some reservations about decriminalisation for medicinal purposes.

“I have a little question mark on the medical marijuana because I see in St Vincent that's the road they're taking; I don't agree with that road, I think that's too limited [an] approach. It's a step yes, but I feel in terms of change, most people what they think, and this is what I also believe, the laws are ineffective, they are discriminatory and unjust, they violate rights, and I think they lack legitimacy.

“And … many people feel that we are also depriving ourselves of important economic opportunities in the cannabis industry. But it's not just an industry, it's also about medical research. And I don't know if you know that The University of the West Indies was one of the pioneers in medical marijuana in the 60s; we developed Canasol … but of course if it's illegal you can't really do the research properly,” Belle Antoine said.

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