Western News

Decriminalise it! - PNP councillor bats for ganja smokers

‘I no longer smoke, but my past is still haunting me’

BY MARK CUMMINGS Editor-at-Large, Western Bureau cummingsm@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, August 29, 2013    

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MONTEGO BAY, St James — People's National Party (PNP) councillor for the Montego Bay South Division Suzette Brown has called for the decriminalisation of ganja for recreational purpose, arguing that such a move would enhance the economic development of sections of her poverty - stricken division.

"I see where any move to legalise the recreational usage of marijuana will go a long way in saving some of our youths, especially those living in depressed areas, who have been made into criminals for possession of a single ganja cigarette," Brown told the Jamaica Observer West.

"I want to see Jamaica get to a stage where recreational ganja users no longer face jail time or suffer the misfortune of having a criminal record. Too many young Jamaican women and men in the prime of their youth have established criminal records for smoking ganja," added Brown.

Brown, a first- time councillor, who also chairs the civic and community affairs committee at the St James Parish Council, argued that on a weekly basis, a number of youths from her division are taken before the courts and often times convicted for the possession of a ganja spliff.

Those found guilty, she noted, are sometimes fined a meager $100.00 and fingerprinted.

The Observer West was unable to ascertain the number of persons who were convicted in the Montego Bay Resident Magistrate's last year for smoking ganja but sources close to the court said it was "a significant amount."

A government -appointed ganja commission in 2003 proposed the decriminalisation of the drug but was never acted upon because the government feared that it would cause the withdrawal of their country's US anti-drug certification and trigger economic sanctions.

The position of the present government on the matter is however unclear.

But Brown argued yesterday that a criminal record serves as a major impediment to upward mobility, saying that the granting of visas, jobs and other critical life endeavours are " next to impossible" for convicted persons.

"And, no place have I seen this more evident than in the areas I represent as councillor. Areas such as North Gully, Canterbury,

Mount Salem, Salt Spring, Railway Lane and others, where the police carry out their sweeps and round up persons, especially the young for possessing a ganja spliff, then hauling them before the courts, where normally they are fined and fingerprinted, automatically transforming them or at least some from just casual ganja smokers to recorded criminals, whose lives seemingly go into abeyance for at least seven years, while they wait for the time to expire when they can move to have their record expunged," she explained.

Brown, who is one of two female councillors at the 17-member St James Parish Council, stressed that she intends to move a motion for the decriminalisation of the drug at the next month's sitting of the council, in a bid to get the support of other councillors.

When the Observer West visited a section of the depressed North Gully on Tuesday, several residents also called for the decriminalisation of ganja.

"I've been arrested for possession for marijuana 10 times. Dem (police) know mi good and now mi have record because of a  spliff. Dem fi do something about dat and stop mash up man fingerprint fi weed. I am trained in waitering, but because of a  criminal record I can't travel and can't get good work," said a 25  year-old resident, who gave his name as Mike. 

Mary, a 26- year-old mother of two who has been unemployed  for several years, said six years ago she was arrested and  charged for possession of a ganja spliff, and later fined $4,000  and fingerprinted. 

"I no longer smoke, but my past is still haunting me. Just di  odda day I was refused entry to the Canadian Farm Work  programme because of my criminal record with the one  incident of possession on it (ganja).

Right now mi feel sey when  somebody is held with a ganja spliff, they should pay a fine  because it is illegal, but di fingerprint nuh necessary as right  away yuh mek mi into a criminal. I neva know sey it was so  serious until now, especially after mi try out fi di Farm Work  programmme," said the mother. 

According to a survey carried out by the Social Development  Commission in 2011, North Gully which sits in the resort town  on Montego Bay, has a population of 1,019 persons, with an  average age of 27 years.

Roughly 68 per cent of the population  is between the ages of 14 and 40, while unemployment among  the youth is estimated to be at 48 per cent. 

Businessman and former president of the Montego Bay  Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Davon Crump, who is  among those calling for the decriminalisation of ganja for  recreational purposes, said it has become difficult for capable  and competent persons convicted of ganja smoking to get jobs. 

"Most businesses require a police record and will not hire new  employees if they are convicted," said Crump, adding that  persons arrested and charged for smoking ganja also "clogs up  the justice system."

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