By Earl Bousquet
New government delivers on another campaign promise
The Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) has delivered on another campaign promise, taking the first steps towards decriminalization of marijuana and industrialization of cannabis – and in the process, apologizing to the island’s Rastafari Community for the historical harassment, discrimination and abuse suffered after criminalization of the herb decades ago by the State as a ‘Dangerous Drug’.
Classification of marijuana as a ‘Dangerous Drug’ across the Caribbean – at the crossroads between colonialism and independence in the mid-to-late 1970s – resulted in lengthy campaigns of police brutality, endless arrests and incarceration of Rastafarians and youth who used the herb for spiritual and medicinal or recreational purposes.
The decades-long campaign resulted in Caribbean jails becoming overpopulated with young persons charged for possession of small amounts of cannabis, even while marijuana use grew globally, eventually creating a multi-million-dollar industry in almost every country on account of its illegal popularity.
Following legalization of marijuana and development of industrial and medicinal products by the same major world powers that initiated its criminalization in the Caribbean, CARICOM governments in March 2014 appointed a CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana to advise on a common approach.
The commission, chaired by UWI Professor Rose Marie Belle Antoine, submitted its final report four years later at the start of August 2018, which was reacted to differently by different national administrations.
In Saint Lucia’s case, the fact that the commission’s chairperson is the wife of ex-prime minister Dr Kenny D. Anthony and the SLP was in opposition at the time, played a large part in the report not being acted upon by then ruling United Workers Party (UWP) administration with the urgency expected by the Rastafarian community – and the much-wider community of silent users of the illegalized herb.
The local government-appointed advisory committee on marijuana was very vocal on the issue and in the past five years the local ‘Cannabis Movement’ organized a series of annual protest marches supporting occasional government assurances of intent to ‘free-up the herb’, only to be disappointed year after year as the government seemed to be more concerned with industrialization through foreign investment.
Invest Saint Lucia, the island’s main investment entity said it was interested in ensuring local growers benefitted from any industrialization of marijuana for export, but the evidence suggested the political directorate had other offshore plans.
‘Legalization’ or ‘Decriminalization’ of ‘Cannabis’ or ‘Marijuana’ was a campaign promise of both major parties during Saint Lucia’s 2016 and 2021 general elections; and the SLP promised in its Manifesto, among other things ‘expunge the records of crime relating to the possession of small amounts of cannabis.’
The SLP won 13 of the 17 seats in the July 26 elections, has in its first two sittings of parliament in one month, amended the laws to expunge criminal charges permanently attached to the police record of persons for ‘one joint’ or small amounts of cannabis for personal, non-commercial use.
The new laws also allow for individuals to have up to 30 grams of marijuana in their possession, but only for private use.
Piloting the amendment, prime minister Philip J. Pierre recalled the related promises contained in the SLP’s 2016 manifesto and said this second amendment was in fulfilment of one of the related promises.
He also lamented that the Rastafarian community had been long ‘the main victims’ of the ‘war on drugs’ by successive administrations ‘because of their belief in the holy herb.’
Prime minister Pierre said the amendments to the law were ‘a start of the process’ of delivering on the promise to respect the rights of Rastafarians and those who use the herb for medical and recreational purposes.
‘Respect others’ rights…’
Prime minister Pierre also warned that this freedom to have a limited amount without being arrested was ‘not a signal for irresponsible smoking’ and called on persons using the herb to ‘respect the rights of members of the public to clean air’ – which is why, he added, smoking in public remains illegal.
“The emphasis will be on examining the related health issues regarding medicinal use and embarking on a national education program to acquaint the public of the rules and regulations and respecting the rights of users and non-users,” said prime minister Pierre.”
The prime minister said the government would now also be able to join the rest of CARICOM to assess a common approach to industrialization and marketing of the weed, which is now a legal product in some of the same countries that promoted its classification as a ‘dangerous drug’.
Prime minister Pierre prophesized the usual suspects in the political opposition and the media will oppose the moves but insisted that ‘I don’t believe (the amendments) will cause people who don’t smoke to start smoking.’
The prime minister’s introductory statement was followed – and supported – by Gros Islet member of parliament and minister for youth & sports, Kenson Casimir, who juxtaposed the historical treatments of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana.
The minister noted that the latest figures showed 95,000 people had died from alcohol and 480,000 died from tobacco globally, while those dying from all types of drugs (including cocaine, etc) was 15,000.
Noting that ‘every life counts…’ and ‘even one death is too much…’, the young member of parliament also said it ‘reeks of hypocrisy’ to support and promote the use of alcohol and tobacco and ban marijuana use.
The minister also noted it currently takes $25,260.90 per year to care for each inmate at the island’s Bordelais Correctional Facility (BCF), where the majority are young people and a significant number are incarcerated after being found guilty of possession of small amounts of the weed.
Casimir said that amount (of money) ‘can provide 150 laptop devices for students or $160 worth of groceries for 150 persons’ — which money would be better spent.
However, the sports minister also had a serious warning to athletes to never forget that despite all the arguments favouring marijuana against alcohol and tobacco, ‘Marijuana is still banned by the World Athletic Doping Agency (WADA)’ because ‘it can help athletes better perform under stress…’
Minister Casimir advised the nation’s athletes with international ambitions and goals to make sure they ‘avoid getting banned’ and urged that ‘education is key’ to understanding the issue in its totality.
Tourism minister Ernest Hilaire said it was ‘a historic day in many respects, changing state/societal relations in a big way, to remedy unjust and suppressive colonial laws.’
He said now that the government had ‘cleansed the permanent criminal records’ of citizens arrested for non-criminal use of the herb, the next step was ‘construction of an economy around cannabis’ that ‘will take some time and learning…’
‘Today, history is being re-written,’ Hilaire said.
The SLP Manifesto says (on page 16): ‘In dialogue and consultation with health officials, education officials and advocated for marijuana legalization, we shall develop a medicinal and recreational Cannabis Industry.’
It also undertook to, ‘Provide the necessary resources to crate and maintain a sustainable and vibrant market for Cannabis, regionally and internationally.’ And promised to ‘Decriminalize the use of marijuana, to be followed by its eventual legalization.’
Among promises already delivered by the Pierre-led administration less than eight weeks in office:
- The payment of facility fees for students for the 2021-2022 academic year; and,
- Provision of 4,000 laptop devices for students to Work From Home and in classes during the hybrid system that’ll see the use of both modalities of education in the COVID age.