The regional debate on cannabis continued Friday afternoon with a call from the Dean of Law at the University of the West Indies Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine for a change in the legislation governing the herb across the region.
Professor Belle Antoine, who is also a member of the CARICOM Commission on Marijuana, told a national consultation on cannabis in Dominica that while she was initially “on the fence” on the way forward, evidence has shown there was need for a change in existing laws.
Antigua and Jamaica have decriminalized the use of small amounts of marijuana, however it remains illegal in the majority of CARICOM states.
Professor Belle Antoine also told the audience that there was strong support for the decriminalization of the drug during the two-year public consultations of the commission.
“We started off, certainly I did, and we were meant to be neutral as we did the work, and we were very careful to be. I myself I would say I was sitting on the fence, you know I’m a legal scientist so I was looking at the pros and cons like what we’re hearing.
“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 to applause from the audience.
According to her, such change could be through decriminalization or legalization. “I personally feel it should be legalization and there are concrete reasons for saying that,” she said, noting economic and medicinal benefits as well as a belief that the current laws are unjust and discriminatory.
“So there is, I would say without any doubt, overwhelming support for law reform, moving away from what we call prohibition, meaning it’s totally outlawed, you become a criminal because of it…
“It’s also important to note how many very prominent persons in the region have come out in support of change: Chief Justices, magistrates, church leaders, judges, social workers, educators, doctors, DPPs, Members of Parliament, senior members of the Bar, these are all voices across the region that we’ve harnessed and many of them have to do with social justice issues, others of course with economics, some to do with the medical marijuana which is the buzz these days.”
Professor Belle Antoine told the audience at the Goodwill Parish Hall just outside the capital, Roseau, that there has also been marked increase in public support for a change in legislation.
“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 persons with disabilities in wheelchairs, many of them were women but they were mainly elderly persons 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.”
However she admitted she had some reservations about decriminalization 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.
She also questioned the purpose of the existing legislation, noting that “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 criminalized. For most of our history it wasn’t, but then it was criminalized.” Professor Belle Antoine said. (MCW)