ST JOHN’S – Prime minister Gaston Browne has issued an apology to Antigua and Barbuda’s Rastafarian community for what he said was the decades of persecution and abuse they suffered at the hands of the police. Browne expressed his regret during Tuesday’s parliamentary debate on the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill, which seeks to decriminalize up to 15 grammes of cannabis for personal use.
Cannabis is widely used by Rastafarians in their religious ceremonies. The prime minister recalled being around Rastafarians as a youth in the 1970s and witnessing the abuse meted out to them by the police.
“I was terrified as a youth of the potential abuse by policemen at the time. They were rampant. Just the smell of marijuana, they would literally go into people’s private homes and literally abuse them.
“In fact, I recall a couple of times I see guys running, literally running from police officers even before they approached them because they knew the consequences. The consequences were not just prosecution.
It was also brutalization,” he declared. Browne said “one or two” people may have even died at the hands of the police and others deprived of their constitutional rights. It was growing up with those sorts of experiences, the PM said, that made him favourably disposed toward decriminalisation of cannabis. According to Browne, his government is inclined to go even further.
“I want to take this opportunity to apologize to the family members of those individuals for the abuse that would have taken place over the decades.
“I would go as far as stating that, if having done the research and we’re able to make that determination that there are individuals who would have suffered abuse
by police officers, and they would have suffered harm that would have impacted on their family members, we’re willing to provide some form of support for these families,” the PM revealed.
He added that he would not make a specific pronouncement on the redress at this time because of cost considerations.
“But I believe that where it is proven definitively that you would have had individuals who would’ve been severely damaged [sic] or would have actually died as a result of police brutality, I think it is only fair that the government treat with the surviving members of those families and to bring them some form ofrelief at this point.”
Browne said it was hoped that there would never be a return to those types of atrocities.
Meanwhile, Rastafarian Elder King Frank I welcomed the prime minister’s overture, but he expressed the hope that more would be done to allow Rastafarians the rights they were already guaranteed under the country’s constitution.
“We are pleased at the acknowledgement of the tribulation Rastafari has paid for the use of a God-given plant, you know, not a manufactured substance.
“And we are hoping that other steps are taken because the political directorate has indicated, we heard this from both the PM and . . . the Honourable Samantha Marshall, that this is the first step,” Frank I told Observer media Wednesday.