Notes of Opening Contribution to the House of Representatives Debate on the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) 2015 Act
by the Minister of National Security
It is with a sense of being on the right side of history that I rise to open the debate on the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) 2015 Act, a very significant piece of legislation, which has had an elephantine gestation, through the House of Representatives.
To describe this Bill’s development as elephantine, is to label it in euphemistic terms since the Parliamentary deliberations on it commenced as far back as 38 years ago with a 1977 Joint Select Committee; since that time there have been many other reports and recommendations by Parliamentary, public, and private sector groups.
Yet, notwithstanding criticisms from some quarters regarding insufficient urgency, this Administration will complete this afternoon, after 38 months in office, what has been outstanding on the national and parliamentary agenda for the last 38 years.
This Amendment will correct the outdated and oppressive approach of the 1948 Dangerous Drugs Act by amending it to, among other things:
- Make the possession of small quantities of ganja a non-arrestable offence, and to instead make it a ticketable infraction that does not result in a criminal record;
- Permit the use of ganja for religious, medical, scientific, and therapeutic purposes, and;
- Provide for regulation through the granting of licenses to permit the development of a lawful industry for medical ganja and industrial hemp.
The importance of the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) 2015 Act is impatient of debate.
It is significant because political historians will align this Act with the raft of social justice legislation of the 70s that strengthened the rights of children, of women, and of workers.
It is significant because it begins to correct decades of criminalizing tens of thousands of Jamaicans, mostly poor young black males, for possession of a little “spliff”.
This progressive legislation also begins to correct the victimization of our Rastafarian brethren which started in colonial times and continued after Independence.
The Minister of Justice, in introducing the Bill in the Senate, gave a comprehensive treatment of the issues addressed in this Bill and his presentation has been widely covered in the media. Therefore, I am not going to retrace the background and the arguments in the same depth and detail, but instead I will highlight key points and also bring some additional national security perspectives to the debate.
It is instructive for us to consider some international trends as we engage in debate on this piece of legislation.
In 1971, the US President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” that was in effect an international war.
In our hemisphere many of the hottest battles of that war occurred in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean – all located between the major cocaine producing countries and the major markets. Over four decades later, the cost of the war on drugs has been huge in terms of lives, money, and the well-being of many of the region’s citizens, especially the poor and less educated.
The paradox of the war on drugs is that it maintains drug prices high to compensate for the risk. The higher prices lead dealers to respond with horrific levels of violence and corruption, thus exacerbating the costs imposed on society.
In recent years many countries and even some US States have begun to decriminalize drug use to some degree, while maintaining the illegality of drug trafficking. In most cases it starts with the decriminalization (or de facto decriminalization i.e. non-enforcement) of marijuana use.
In point of fact, some European countries have gone as far as to decriminalize the use of drugs more generally. Some impact studies have uncovered no significant increase in drug addiction but interestingly enough, significant reductions in violent criminal offences.
The research also shows that, in a decriminalized environment, drug addicts are more likely to avail themselves of treatment programs; and that the taxes on the sale of drugs, similar to those on cigarettes and alcohol, can be used to finance education and addiction programmes.
So this Bill we are debating today is consistent with international trends and experience, namely:-
i) decriminalization of ganja for personal use, ii) regulated production and distribution, and iii) the use of revenues from licensing for public education to discourage use by vulnerable groups and to mitigate adverse public health consequences.
Practical from a Law Enforcement Perspective
It should also be noted that there are a number of additional benefits from a law enforcement perspective:
- A regime for legal production and distribution of ganja eliminates the monopoly that organized criminals now have in this area and consequently reduce their funding for criminal enterprise. Recent media and law enforcement reports suggest that since the regulated regimes for medicinal and recreational marijuana have come into effect in some US states, the price for Mexican marijuana has dropped by more than 50%, making it uneconomical for many of the Mexican cartels to continue exporting to the United States. Just as the end of prohibition drove gangsters out of the alcohol market, drug gangs will be driven out of a decriminalized marijuana market.
- It allows for more effective deployment of law enforcement resources. In 2014, with our policy direction already clear, the JCF arrested 5,300 fewer persons for minor offences, primarily possession of small quantities of ganja, than in 2013. Thereby freeing tens of thousands of police man hours to focus on serious criminals. It also contributed to reducing i) overcrowding in lock-ups, and ii) the caseload burden on the RM Courts.
- It reduces the pool of youths vulnerable to gang recruitment. One social cost of those thousands of arrests and convictions per year over decades has been to consign these young men to the margins of our economy. With a criminal record they are unable to get many jobs, prohibited from farm work programmes, and restricted in their overseas travel. Ironically, by reducing their legitimate opportunities it increases the likelihood of their involvement in criminal activity such as housebreaking, larceny, robbery, etc.
- It removes a source of friction between police and community. Many of our citizens do not regard smoking a spliff as materially different from smoking a cigarette or drinking alcohol. The community doesn’t view these youth as criminal so their arrest by the police is inevitably perceived as harassment or oppression. Therefore, we anticipate an improvement in police citizen relationship as one of the positives of this legislation.
Interestingly, even Bill Bratton, the NYPD Commissioner and strong proponent of the Broken Windows Policy, now admits that arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana are unnecessary and of limited utility. The NYPD—working in collaboration with Mayor de Blasio’s office, the courts, and the city’s five district attorneys—determined that the order-maintenance value of these arrests was low, while the cost in police time and resources and community concern was high. As a result, going forward, police will be summoning offenders for this violation rather than arresting them.
So the policy and operational direction that this administration is pursuing in regard to possession of small quantities of ganja is supported by the experience of the NYPD.
No Let Up in Fight Against Organised Crime
Importantly, the Bill is drafted to ensure compliance with our international treaties and signals our strengthened resolve to combat organized crime by increasing the financial penalties for offences involving transnational illegal trafficking in all forms of prohibited drugs.
For avoidance of any doubt, let me be absolutely clear.
The passage of this legislation does not create a free for all in the growing, transporting, dealing, or exporting of ganja. The security forces will continue to rigorously enforce Jamaican law consistent with our international treaty obligations.
Jamaican law enforcement agencies have worked hard with our international partners to make significant inroads against narcotics trafficking and transnational criminal organizations over the last fifteen years and there will be no relaxation in that regard.
These criminals are the ones importing illegal guns into Jamaica as compensation for illicit trafficking. These illegal guns are used in the violent slaughter of hundreds of our men, women, and children each year. These organized crime participants are the ones corrupting the security forces and public officials that undermine our governance systems and stifle economic growth.
Jamaica recognises that certain monitoring, reporting and other enforcement mechanisms must be implemented to safeguard against the licensed activity being used as a pretext for illicit drug trade or to contribute to financing criminal enterprises. These reforms will be supported by a regulatory framework to be developed and enacted by way of Regulations under the Bill.
The Provisions of the Bill
I will now describe, in the general terms outlined by the Minister of Justice, the main reform measures that will be introduced by the Bill:
- Amends the definition of ganja to exclude hemp;
- Makes the possession of two ounces or less of ganja a ticket able infraction that is not subject to powers of arrest or detention, is dealt with outside the court system, and does not result in a criminal record;
- Removes the existing offence of smoking ganja from the Dangerous Drugs Act, and makes smoking ganja in public places a ticket able infraction that is not subject to powers of arrest or detention, is dealt with outside the court system, and does not result in a criminal record;
- Permits the cultivation of five or less ganja plants on any premises, which will be regarded as being for medical or therapeutic use of the leaves or for horticultural purposes;
Amendments related to Religious Purpose
- Permits the possession of ganja for religious purposes as a sacrament, in adherence to the Rastafarian faith;
- Empowers the Minister responsible for justice:
- to authorize a person, group of persons or organization adherent to the Rastafarian faith, to cultivate ganja on designated land, to be used for religious purposes; and
- to declare an event an “exempt event” where he is satisfied that it is promoted or sponsored by a person, group of persons or organization adherent to the Rastafarian faith and is primarily for the purpose of the celebration or observance of the Rastafarian faith, so that persons will not be subject to penalty for conveying to, possession or smoking of ganja at the event;
Amendments related to medical and therapeutic purposes
- Permits the use of ganja for medical or therapeutic purposes, as prescribed or recommended in writing by a registered medical practitioner, or other health practitioner approved by the Minster of Health;
- Permits persons who are suffering from cancer or other serious chronic illness, to import ganja or products comprising ganja, where their use is recommended by a registered medical practitioner, in an amount not exceeding that recommended by the registered medical practitioner (this measure recognizes an immediate need for persons with such illnesses to access cannabis strains and derivative products that have been developed overseas, pending Jamaica developing our own medicinal capacities in this area);
- Permits persons visiting Jamaica who provide satisfactory evidence that their use of ganja for medical or therapeutic purposes has been prescribed by a medical practitioner in the jurisdiction where they are ordinarily resident, to purchase permits authorising them to purchase and possess up to two ounces of ganja while in Jamaica, subject to conditions (including the payment of a prescribed fee);
Amendments related to scientific and research purposes
- Permits the use of ganja for scientific research conducted by an accredited tertiary institution or research institution otherwise approved by the Scientific Research Council;
- Empowers the Minister responsible for science and technology, by order, to authorize an institution or body to cultivate and/or import ganja or any part of the plant for scientific research;
Amendments related to the Licensing Regime
- Provides for the establishment of a new regulatory body, the Cannabis Licensing Authority, which will be responsible for establishing a lawful, regulated hemp and medicinal ganja industry. The Cannabis Licensing Authority will, with the approval of the Minister responsible for justice, make Regulations treating with (among other things) procedures and criteria for applying for and retention of licenses, permits and other authorizations for cultivation, processing, distribution, sale and other handling of ganja for medical, scientific and therapeutic purposes. The Bill specifically requires that the Regulations must be compliant with Jamaica’s international obligations. The Minister with responsibility for investment and commerce is authorised to give policy directions to the Cannabis Licensing Authority, and it is the intention to ensure that the licensing regime is as inclusive as possible so as to allow participation in the industry by small farmers and other small and medium sized businesses.
In concluding let me recap the significance of this Bill:
It will expand Jamaicans’ access to medical and therapeutic ganja products to fight against a range of diseases and related symptoms, and allows for overseas medical marijuana patients to continue their treatment while vacationing in Jamaica.
It facilitates the development of a lawful, regulated ganja industry building on the pioneering work of Prof. Manley West and Dr. Albert Lockhart.
It eliminates an unnecessary source of friction between police and citizens, and ensures that our young people are not gratuitously shackled with criminal records.
It allows for a more efficient use of police resources in the continuing fight against organised crime and encourages our citizens to become actively engaged in assisting our law enforcement agencies.
It facilitates, for the first time at last, Rastafarians having the freedom to practice their religion as guaranteed by our constitution.
I am confident that the Members of this Honourable House will support the passage of this important legislation, the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Bill 2015, and I invite their contributions.
Peter Bunting, MP
Minister of National Security
February 24, 2015