The evidence is powerful and overwhelming. In almost every Barbadian community today, residents know of someone, usually a young male, who aimlessly walks around in a generally unkempt state, often spaced out like a zombie, and repeatedly making a nuisance of himself by pestering passers-by for small change, to feed a habit that has placed him on a slow but sure path to self-destruction.
Go to the court pages of Barbados TODAY –– or any other local newspaper for that matter –– on any given day, and the evidence again hits hard in the face. Tragic stories of a seemingly endless parade of young men, and occasionally young women too, appearing before the courts to answer charges related mostly to marijuana or cocaine.
In the majority of cases, they were caught with a spliff or two of marijuana. In other cases, it is for the harder stuff –– cocaine or its deadly crack derivative. Standing before the presiding magistrate, these tormented souls quite often desperately plead for help, as part of their sentence, to be set free from the devilish clutches of addiction ruining their lives.
During debate on an amendment to the Health Services Act in the House of Assembly earlier this week, the devastating toll which illegal drugs are having on the Barbadian society was detailed. The impact is seen from many perspectives, including Government expenditure where growing sums of public money are going every year towards footing the costly bill for rehabilitating addicts. The taxpayer spends $105 every day to treat addicts sent to Verdun House, representing a total cost of $4 million to Government since the St John-based facility opened 15 years ago. Add to that the cost of services offered by the Psychiatric Hospital.
The impact of drugs is also seen from a human resources perspective. Persons in the most productive age group, who should be contributing to national development, are unable to do so because of mental and other illnesses resulting from illegal drug use.
If anything, the problem seems set to become worse before it gets better, with the news from Minister of Health John Boyce that more and more Barbadians are going for mind-blowing drug cocktails of marijuana, cocaine and alcohol to get high –– a “serious concern to the Ministry of Health”.
Contributing to the debate on Tuesday, Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) Member of Parliament for Christ Church West Dr Maria Agard called for a national consultation on the use and abuse of illegal drugs. It is a call Barbados TODAY wholeheartedly supports.
In fact, we go a step further by calling for the establishment of a commission of enquiry to not only investigate the various factors contributing to widespread drug usage on the island, but also to recommend solutions, drawing on international best practices. The crisis is such that it requires this kind of response.
Barbadians, primarily within the 18-35 age group, do have a hearty appetite for illegal drugs. This robust demand has made Barbados an obviously lucrative market for producers and exporters elsewhere in the region. If this were not so, the island would not be a constant target of the seemingly endless queue of drug mules who arrive, especially on flights from Jamaica and Guyana. Hardly a week goes by without news of one or two being caught at the Grantley Adams International Airport.
Then, there are the vessels –– arriving mostly from neighbouring St Vincent and the Grenadines –– which are being caught with large quantities of marijuana destined for these shores. Effectively, policing our ports of entry and territorial waters only add to the already heavy financial costs of combating the drug problem. So too does the upkeep of foreign nationals and Barbadians arrested in these operations and subsequently sentenced to terms of imprisonment at HMP Dodds.
Dr Agard made other important points. For example, she sought to focus lawmakers’ attention not only on the criminal aspect of illegal drug trade, but also the underlying social and economic causes, which she said must be identified to effectively address the problem. She also expressed concern about the criminalization of persons, mostly from a particular socioeconomic group, caught with small quantities of drugs, especially marijuana.
“I believe that any law that predominantly targets any one socioeconomic group for harassment, arrests, prosecution and incarceration is a bad law,” she said.
Against the backdrop of a growing number of countries moving towards the decriminalization of marijuana, especially in cases where persons are caught with small quantities, and the establishment of a CARICOM commission, a commission of enquiry would represent a timely move. For sure, the broad-based conversation it would facilitate and the recommendations it would eventually put forward would greatly assist in bringing greater clarity and understanding to one of the most pressing issues of our time.