Some lawmakers on Friday declared what many outside Parliament say they have long known about inequality in the criminal justice system – some people get off lightly for possession and use of cannabis owing to their race, class and relative wealth.
Member of Parliament for St James North Edmund Hinkson was the first to raise the issue as the House of Assembly moved to amend the Drug Abuse (Prevention and Control) Act. He said he hoped the changes would help to bring balance to the treatment of drug offenders.
Hinkson said: “It cannot be denied that criminalisation of possession of cannabis and certain derivatives has unfairly disadvantaged poor people and black people all over the world, especially in the western hemisphere.
“This is the reality that cannot be denied. We know that people of different economic classes have been able to get away with smoking cannabis and possession of illegal drugs haven’t been brought to court because of who they are or whose children they may be, as well as people who are middle-come blacks.
“Therefore, what we are doing here today is doing justice to people of the lower economic brackets of this society and black people, who are invariably those brought before the court system and who acquire a criminal record because of possession of small quantities of drugs.”
Attorney General Dale Marshall said the amendments made provision for a fixed penalty for possession of 14 grams or less of cannabis, to be paid within 30 days.
Offenders under the age of 18 are to be referred to the National Council on Substance Abuse within 14 days of being found in possession for an assessment and to undergo counselling.
Hinkson said: “The fundamental issue here is that we need to keep as many of our people out of a conviction of a crime as possible”.
Pointing out that about 85 per cent of employers require a police certificate of character for hiring, Hinkson said despite someone being competent and qualified for a job they were often denied “simply because they have a conviction for possession of cannabis or some illegal substance”.
Opposition Leader Reverend Joseph Atherley said he welcomed the amendments if they would create equality within the justice system.
He said: “I am suggesting to us that if this legislation seeks to improve the system of justice especially with respect to penalties meted out to our younger people to avoid them not only having establish a criminal record but to avoid them further becoming criminalized, then it is something worthy of support. We cannot continue to criminalise our young people.”
Reverend Atherley said those who were “apparently” guilty of using and selling small quantities of marijuana “just to make ends meet” and to feed their children were working-class people. But he said that very often “those who are apparently guilty of bigger offences are untouched by the shorted arm of the law. Its reach does not extend to them”.
He continued: “Where perchance it does extend that reach and it touches them, then the system does not fully bring to bear its weight upon them because they don’t face the courts for some reason or if they do face the courts, avenues are found whereby they may enjoy their freedom.
“I am saying therefore in a much broader frame, if this legislation helps to address the imbalance in our justice system with respect to how people of different classes, different stations in life are treated, then it has some merit and is worthy of consideration because we have to take any discriminatory practice which may obtain either in actuality or at the level of perception in Barbados out of the practice of dispensing justice in this country.” (MM)