If it is one characteristic about the Mia Mottley administration that must be applauded, it is the willingness to make decisions. The tough ones! The country’s previous leadership has often been accused of mimicking Emperor Nero, collectively playing fiddles or citharas – depending on one’s desire for historical accuracy – while Barbados ‘burnt’. These appear to be different times.
Yesterday, Attorney General Dale Marshall announced from the floor of Parliament that Government was preparing draft legislation to take to the Lower Chamber for debate on permitting members of the Rastafarian community to freely use cannabis as part of their religious worship. He said the decision to introduce the legislation which should be available within the next few weeks was made following a challenge from the Rastafarian community to find a way to allow Rastas to use marijuana for their sacramental beliefs the same way measures were being put in place to allow its use for medicinal purposes.
“Mr Speaker, for us to continue to prohibit that, would be to continue to breach their fundamental constitutional rights. And not just rights guaranteed by the Barbados Constitution, but rights guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“And that covenant says in Article 18 (1) ‘Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice. And freedom either individually or in community with others and in public or private to manifest his religion, or belief or worship, observance, practice and teaching.’ The Barbados constitution Sir, which came after the treaty was in place but before we signed on to it, is expressed in similar words,” he said.
There will be those, of course, who will respond to this emotionally and see the destruction of Barbados as we know it or knew it. There will be those who will applaud the decision as progressive and the just thing to do. We are all entitled to our opinions, even when palpably wrong. It appears that Mr Marshall and his Government is making a decision that is not based or guided by public ignorance or hysteria, but one rooted in adherence to ensuring the fundamental rights of individuals are guaranteed. Fairness, within our constitution, seems to be at the heart of Government’s decision.
Of course, one cannot simply legislate away people’s fears, prejudices, ignorance, uninformed opinions or indifference to historical truths. Before and after such legislation is passed, we anticipate that there will be some major public awareness exercise by the Mottley administration to raise the enlightenment of Barbadians on all the relevant issues not only about the use of cannabis but also about the decision that it has made. We also anticipate that there will be some in our community who will accuse Government of tiptoeing around the issue of complete decriminalization of cannabis. And, perhaps, they have just cause. Some might argue that if cannabis can serve positive medicinal purposes, and can minister to the spiritual needs of a religious community, then why stop short of total decriminalization of the use of the plant.
With Government’s tacit concession that the rights of Rastafarians might have been infringed over the years by arresting, fining and incarcerating many for using their religious sacrament, a number of assertions are being made in several quarters. And these assertions seem to give support to the opinion of many that the use of cannabis should be decriminalized – period! No Rastafarian should have to identify himself, or, facetiously, have to be registered as a Rastafarian, to legitimize the use of religious sacrament. No Rastafarian should have to wear dreadlocks to be identified as a member of the faith. No requirement is placed on members of the Anglican, Catholic, Buddhist, Bahai, Islamic or any other faith to physically demonstrate that they are members of their faith. Government cannot in the same breath seek to protect the rights of Rastafarians and at the same time place any restrictive policies or rules in place to superintend their religion when they do not place conditions on the practice of others. Such restrictions or controls would be especially egregious in circumstances where observation of Rastafarian religious practices does not infringe on the rights of others.
There are those – without evidence, empirical or otherwise – who will see red-eyed, raving lunatics, peeling cane with combs and crashing cars into lampposts under the influence of cannabis, as Government continues on the path the world community is headed. But such hysteria is without substance. One merely can check our courts, hospitals, police records and should not be surprised that there is evidence that youth deviancy has negligible linkages to the use of cannabis. Perhaps, it would be of benefit for persons to research the history of cannabis prior to the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act and note that underpinning its criminalization was commerce. Health considerations have been exposed as an available convenience.
It is one of the ironies of Caribbean societies that a substance that propped up our economies and benefited mainly the planter class has been embraced by West Indians and the global community but is a major killer that has never been banned. Sugar, a deadly menace, is linked to kidney disease, gout, dental problems, cognitive decline, fatty liver, cellular aging, depression, diabetes, acne, heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, breast, endometrial and colon cancers, and a host of other ailments. Yet we feed it in large legal portions to our children and our own bodies seven days a week with impunity.
But that is another story.