Decriminalization of marijuana: a world issue

Whether marijuana is glorified by musicians, scorned by churches, revered as a religious sacrament or outlawed as a drug, the only constant about marijuana is that it is a topic of constant conflict.

A prevalent problem in the marijuana debate is that policy makers and  public differ in their opinions about whether or not  the plant should be classified as a “drug”.

While Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is scientifically proven to have chemical effects consistent with that of “drug” use, marijuana is simply the dried leaves of a plant. When weighed against other substances such as cigarettes, which are processed and have a myriad of chemicals, marijuana, being an all-natural substance, at first glance doesn’t seem to fit the description of a drug at all.

Faced with record high arrests, convictions and prison sentences for possession of marijuana, governments of the world have one by one began re-thinking the status of the plant, and have either considered decriminalization or, as has occurred in some countries, full legalization.

In Belize, it was announced on Monday, July 16, that a committee, chaired by former Minister of Police Doug Singh, had been commissioned to evaluate data on the decriminalization of marijuana and make recommendations on whether or not G.O.B. should lessen the sentences given to those found with minimal amounts of marijuana in their possession.

In the region, due to strain on law enforcement resources, several other countries have already begun their re-evaluation process. In Jamaica on April 11, 2011, the country’s Cabinet appointed a ministerial commission to review the recommendations made in the report of the National Commission on Ganja, which was chaired by the late Professor Barry Chevannes and submitted in 2001.

While marijuana use is popular in Jamaica, its status is still illegal, and sanctionable by law; however, the recent step to evaluate the 2001 report shows signs that Jamaica is re-assessing its position.

In Brazil, the “Drug Law: It’s Time to Change” campaign is an initiative launched by the Brazilian Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which aims to gather one million signatures in support of a bill that will be introduced in congress during the second half of 2013.

Even former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003), has rallied behind this campaign that seeks to amend the country’s anti-drug policy act (Law 11,343/2006), which makes no distinction between users and dealers. Accounts have been posted on the Internet by Brazilian citizens who say that under the current law they have been given sentences, which are considerably excessive for only a small amount of marijuana in their possession.

Mexico is a country frustrated with its war on drugs to the point where current and former presidents are calling for the drug policies to change. The death toll has risen to 28,000 since 2006, with more than 6,000 people killed in Ciudad Juárez, just across from El Paso, since 2008. Earlier this year, former Mexican president Felipe Calderón said he would support a national debate on the issue of legalization, reversing his previous stance on the subject. However, he underscored that he does not favor legalization, especially while the U.S., the world’s largest consumer of drugs, maintains prohibition.

The United States, which is one of the largest marijuana importers in the world, simultaneously has one of the loudest battle cries in the war against drugs. The US, since 2008, have had 17 of their 52 states legalize marijuana for medicinal use.  In 2009 the U.S. cut Jamaica’s financial aid for anti-drug operations by half because it claimed Jamaica to be the largest exporter of marijuana to the U.S. The United States is scheduled to have a forum on the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, scheduled for sometime in October this year.

In Canada, while marijuana is still illegal, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper said at the Summit of the Americas in April, that the country would revisit the existing drug policies. Harper expressed that he believes their current anti drug campaign isn’t working. Several independent surveys have been conducted in Canada since the statement, but a definite publication on what the Canadian government will do and when it will do it is still pending.

Marijuana use has been so much a concern of the world that the United Nations made the 1988 UN convention against the illicit traffic in narcotic drugs, banding together the countries of the world in the war against drugs. The signing of the convention has placed significant pressure on countries which now, due to the rapid rise in marijuana use and the effects it has on their criminal justice system, wish to rethink their drug policies.

The arguments for and against the decriminalization of marijuana vary form climate to climate however the substance of each when simplified seem to exhibit similar patterns. Primarily people are concerned with the Pandoras’ box effect that the act of decriminalizing would pave the way for eventual legalization. This theory examines the possibility that decriminalization is a form of compromise, showing weakness in a governments’ resolve to combat crime.

Those of this view believe that once decriminalization takes effect, the advocates of legalization will become even more zealous and apply even more pressure to which the governments would have shown they are not prepared to endure. Those of the contrary believe that the issues of decriminalization and legalization are separate issues and should be handled as such. They stated that decriminalization is beneficial to law enforcement because it frees up time and valuable resources to be pursue more serious pursuits.

There are also concerns that decriminalization will bolster the ego of those disposed to break the law. With the penalties being softer, they will carry on more blatant infractions making sure that they have just the prescribed about by law to keep within the comfort zone of the decriminalized penalties.

The Reporter spoke with Doug Singh, chairman of the newly established committee, on the pro-decriminalization arguments. Singh explained that when idea came from the Ministry it was a part of the second-chance policy, which was being drafted.

Singh went on to say that when the figures were analyzed a great portion of convicted persons were on possession charges for marijuana, many of them youths who had just made bad decisions in life.

These convictions brought them criminal records, which later made it difficult to find jobs, get visas to go on vacation or to go abroad to receive education or training, and overall trapped them within an unforgiving system.

The second chance policy would, in these cases, wipe clean those who had records for summary offences, particularly those who were convicted of possession of marijuana, in an attempt to assist them in becoming productive citizens.

He also said he would not respond to the Pandoras’ box criticism because there is insufficient data to prove that such a theory could actually materialize, but welcomed anyone with conclusive data to bring it forward for discussion. No response would also be given to the thought of marijuana being a gateway drug, also because of insufficient data.

While there is no shortage of data on the pros and cons of marijuana use, the availability of such data as well as the sources that produce them, do more harm than good on occasion by not taking objective stances when the studies are produced. Coalitions for the legalization of marijuana will conduct research on the effects of marijuana, but often come into question because the public can predict that that particular study will reflect minimal if any negative effects. Like wise, anti-marijuana groups will produce reports characterizing marijuana as the devil in a plant, without accrediting the possibility of positive side effects. The on-going battle of the facts rages on seemingly without end, where a new report emerges every few months to contradict some earlier report.

Belize is fortunate to have not signed the 1988 UN convention and therefore can freely rethink its policies without running a foul of any international commitments. Once the committee has finished consulting the public and has assessed its data, it will make its recommendations to GOB.

While the end of the story is anyone’s guess from there, it is notable that the U.S., the Caribbean and Canada are still deliberating on the topic, putting Belize in good company. One thing remains certain. Once the committee has issued its recommendations, if the GOB does decriminalize marijuana, the conclusive data that Singh spoke of will be readily available in a relatively short period of time.

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