(Opinion published in The Daily Herald)
The dissolution of the country Netherlands Antilles, and the constitutional transition known as 10-10- 10, came to us on Saba with much promise yet much uncertainty. We were excited to join the fold of the Netherlands as it meant greater benefits for our people in terms of development and human rights. Although we did not precisely know what that would mean or how it would be achieved, or even what it would look like. One comfort was that the non-functional and destructive laws and statutes of the transition would be evaluated and remedied in 2015. The rotten flesh will be thrown away allowing the clean flesh to remain healthy.
One of the laws that should be evaluated and corrected is the Opium Act 1960 BES. This law is part of the rotten flesh of the transition. It adversely affects the social opportunity for our population who engage in the recreational, spiritual and medicinal use of marijuana. It acts as societal tight rope, where otherwise responsible, taxpaying and orderly adult citizens face being stripped of their freedom and rights simply by utilizing a small piece of nature for their own benefit.
Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica, and Cannabis Ruderalis (commonly known as marijuana, hemp, weed, or ganja) are species of the cannabis plant indigenous to Central and South Asia. This plant’s cultivation, preparation, treatment, transportation, usage and possession are forbidden under the Opium Act 1960 BES. To possess any part of this plant, with the exception of the seeds, on Saba can land you in some hot water with the authorities which can result in having a conviction on your record. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment with a fine of US $56,000. It is unlikely a judge will slap you with a life sentence but in any case, the consequences are dire. You are stigmatized by the community for being a “criminal”. You suddenly become “one of those” men or “those kind of” women. On top of that you are limited to ever entering the world of certain occupations. You wanted to serve our Unspoiled Queen in the police force or Customs department? Well please try again in another life. Similarly, you will never be a lawyer or a judge. Good luck running for public office without your opponents or the press bringing it up.
And while you are at it consider the problems convicts face trying to apply for work visas in other countries. Say you have a degree in medicine and are offered a job with the United Nations in New York but have a conviction for possession. I guess someone else will take your job. Having this law as it stands puts at risk a segment of our population to social death. If someone told you today that regardless of what you do you have no chances of improving your situation, what would be the reason to live? What would be the motivation to work hard? To be responsible, kind or generous? We need to modify this law and allow all of our citizens to live the remainder of their lives without fear of imprisonment, discrimination, stigma or social immobility.
Our current law simply does not work. Consider the following. It has not made marijuana harder to obtain. Prices for marijuana are still affordable for even persons on meagre incomes. It has also been reported that the quality of marijuana has been steadily increasing for the last 40 years. Now more than ever, our people have easy access to using cannabis. If the idea behind prohibition was to eliminate and eradicate marijuana, it is clear that it has utterly failed on its objectives. The answer then is to decriminalize the use and possession of marijuana. This frees the responsible citizen from being lumped together with the hard drug smuggler.
Moreover, the responsible citizen is not forced to use the illegal drug market to obtain cannabis. Since marijuana is an illegal drug, its importation into these islands must be via organized crime syndicates as they are the only entity with the capacity to match the demand with supply. Decriminalizing marijuana reduces the hold of organized crime into the trade of cannabis, thus decreasing the responsible citizen and underage minor from encountering harder drugs such as cocaine, heroin, opium and methamphetamines. It also allows the police to focus on more serious crimes such as human trafficking.
But you don’t have to believe me. Just look around the world at the consequences of prohibition or decriminalization in other countries. Uruguay’s motivation to legalize marijuana was to inhibit the hold of organized crime. Our own mother country, the Netherlands, had a similar motivation in decriminalizing soft drugs in the 1970s. The Netherlands also has lower levels of teen usage of marijuana compared to other countries where marijuana is outlawed. On the other side of the coin, before the recent surge of decriminalization in the USA, prohibition of marijuana allowed Mexican drug cartels, the primary importer of marijuana to the USA, to obtain such power and wealth that they now pose a threat to the national security of both Mexico and the USA.
More and more countries are realizing this. Our own Caribbean neighbor Jamaica recently decriminalized marijuana. It joins Belguim, Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Estonia, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland in this regard. Several states in the US, such as California, Oregon, Nevada, Connecticut, New York and Arizona have also decriminalized the use of marijuana. Colorado and Washington State have gone as far as legalization. The government of Trinidad and St. Vincent are saying it’s time to discuss the possibility of decriminalization. Panel discussions and committees are being set up in Antigua and Barbuda as well as Barbados to explore the liberation of cannabis.
How long before we realize that it is in our interest to decriminalize marijuana? During the evaluation of the constitutional change in 2015, we should repeal the Opium Act 1960 BES and adopt the Opium Act of the Netherlands. This would not legalize marijuana but it would nullify the penalty for its cultivation, preparation, treatment, transportation, usage and possession up to 30 grams. This would stamp out any possibility of social death for the responsible citizen while expanding the possibilities for medical marijuana to our islands. I say death to the backward policy of prohibition and life to an era of human rights, respect and dignity.
Name withheld at author’s request.