Leader of the Opposition Godwin Friday on Thursday told Parliament there were contradictions in proposed changes to the nation’s marijuana law that lawmakers are debating.
He said that to benefit from the provisions under some parts of the law, persons would actually commit other offences.
The opposition leader said he was not sure why the Ralph Gonsalves government was being “so timid” with the law, which will make smoking of marijuana in public or possession of less than two ounces of the drug a ticketable offence.
If the changes are passed into law, a person in possession of less than two ounces of marijuana cannot be jailed for it and will also not get a criminal record because of it.
Friday noted that in Antigua and Barbuda, it is legal for a person to grow up to four marijuana plants on private premises.
“And we have made a proposal to say similar things should be done here,” he told Parliament.
He said that in not making such a provision, a problem is created for residents of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, where smoking marijuana in one’s home would become legal if the act is passed into law.
Friday said: “Here is the problem, Mr. Speaker: we are saying it is possible for someone to have in his possession two ounces or less of cannabis. But where will the person get it from? They have to get it from an illegal trafficker, as it is now, if he can’t grow it himself.
“… So now you have a regime that is saying you are making it more permissible for persons to smoke in a public place or to possess up to 15 grammes but they have to buy it from somebody who produces it illegally.”
The opposition leader’s statement was not well received by government lawmakers.
In response he said:
“What are you shaking your head for? How else would you do it if you can’t grow it yourself? Where do you get it from?
“So my proposal, Mr. Speaker, is if you are going to do it, make it a complete circle. If you are doing to have small possession, have small quantities that you grow yourself so, therefore, you don’t have to go and purchase it from somebody who is a trafficker and encourage, in a sense, by this legislation, the use and trafficking at the same time.”Friday said he did not see why his proposed amendment is so complicated, adding that this is something he believes will reduce incidences of trafficking which are still and should remain illegal.
The opposition leader, who is a lawyer, said he prefers when legislation speaks clearly about its intention.
He said that the law says it is illegal to use cannabis in a public place, meaning that one can do so in their private home.
He, however, said that a similar thing does not apply if a person has it as a mere possession in their private home.
“So if a police officer is in your home, for whatever reason, and find a spliff (marijuana cigarette), he can still charge you, because you are not smoking it. It’s possession.
“So that, too, to be consistent, it has to be brought in line with the provision for smoking… Otherwise, you would have the strange situation where the police will have to stand up at your fence and watch you smoking in your porch, but if they see you have it … somewhere on a ledge they can come and take it, because you are not smoking it. And I am sure that can’t be the intention.”
Friday said that lawmakers could say that police officers have to exercise common-sense.
“But we have seen enough, Mr, Speaker, where it is used as ways, as wedges to get at different things and it should not be left to their discretion.
“If we are drafting the law, it should be a legal right, it should be a protection that is offered to the persons who we are saying, in this decriminalised regime or, as the [CARICOM Marijuana] Commission has said, it is actually a hybrid we have here because in designated private places it is actually legal, in your private home it is actually legal, not decriminalised, the police have no business with you if you are doing it in those places, and in a tabernacle.”
Minister can say ‘yes’, and police ‘no’
Pointing to another apparent contradiction, Friday said the bill says that the minister may designate public areas where smoking marijuana is legal, although the smoking of marijuana in public is still an offence
“So, here you are saying that the minister says you can smoke there but if the police see you, can still be fined,” Friday said. “There is nowhere in the legislation that says you don’t pay a ticket except if you smoke in your home. If I have the wrong interpretation, then let me know…”
He noted that Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, in presenting the bill, said that persons who have suffered penalties for possession of small quantities of marijuana are owed an apology
Friday noted that just last year, the prime minister told the media that his government opposes the full-scale decriminalisation of marijuana, saying that a poll had showed that that was the view of 62 per cent of the country’s population.
“But he is saying now that we should have done it a long time ago. Well, one thing that can be done is to expunge the record of all those persons who have convictions for two ounces or less and do it wholesale.”
Friday said that Antigua has done so, adding, “It’s not a radical thing to do.”
He noted that the law provides for persons in the future who are in possession of two ounces or less of marijuana.
“And I think that ought to be a necessary part for fairness and since the Honourable Prime Minister has since rightly indicated that these measures should have been brought a long time ago, if it had been brought a long time ago, a lot of these people would not have records, so we should go back, expunge the records of those people, Mr. Speaker, who have been convicted.”
At this point, the prime minister rose and noted that possession with intent to supply refers to in excess of 15 grammes of marijuana.
He said that a person’s record does not state the quantum of marijuana for which they had been convicted.
“… possession with intent to supply can go from over 15 grammes to pounds,” said Gonsalves, who is also a lawyer.
“That’s a problem we are working through,” he said, adding that those convicted of simple conviction can be cleared.
Friday, however, said the clarification does not negate the issue of expunging the record because lawmakers can deal with it for simple possession at least.
He added that trafficking is not covered under the law, so what was being debated was smoking and simple possession.
“So expunge the record of those persons… Antigua has done it. It can’t be that difficult,” the opposition leader said.
Under the proposed new law, a person who admits to possession of less than two ounces of marijuana would be issued an EC$80 ticket and would be summoned to appear in court, if they deny the charge.
In court, a person can be charged EC$500 for possession of less than two ounces.
Friday, however, said that someone might deny liability if they are unsure of the quantity of marijuana in their possession, adding that in such a circumstance, putting the person in jeopardy of an EC$500 fine is excessive and the fine should also be EC$80.
Regarding smoking marijuana in a public place, Friday said one might think that most persons accept the lesser liability of EC$80.
“But $80 for somebody who doesn’t have $20 is still a lot of money to admit to,” he said, adding that this can create hardships for someone who is using marijuana for recreational purposes.
He said that if the intention is to not penalise for an activity that is essentially permissible, then the fine can amount to quite a severe fine, noting that there is no limit to the number of times that persons can be brought before the court
“So there has to be, Mr. Speaker, some way of ensuring that the discretion of the officers who are enforcing this bill is exercised in an even-handed way and not in any personal or biased manner,” he said.
He said that some police officers might target certain people, giving them an EC$80 ticket every Monday morning, and this adds up.
“These are considerations that are real in terms of the way in which this legislation is implemented,” the opposition leader said.