Re­view of laws, sen­tenc­ing pol­icy on ganja needed

– Ram­jat­tan

Stabroek News - - FRONT PAGE -

While ac­knowl­edg­ing that the laws and by ex­ten­sion the penal­ties for cannabis of­fences ought to be re­viewed, Min­is­ter of Pub­lic Se­cu­rity Khem­raj Ram­jat­tan yes­ter­day also ar­gued that the cur­rent ab­sence of a clear sen­tenc­ing pol­icy is a prob­lem.

Ram­jat­tan made th­ese com­ments fol­low­ing con­tin­ued pub­lic crit­i­cisms of the “harsh” sen­tences be­ing handed down for pos­ses­sion of cannabis, in­clud­ing the re­cent high­pro­file case of foot­ball coach Vib­ert Butts.

Butts was last week sen­tenced to three years in jail af­ter plead­ing guilty to hav­ing 46 grammes of cannabis in his pos­ses­sion for traf­fick­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the law, pos­ses­sion of any amount of cannabis over 15 grammes is con­sid­ered traf­fick­ing, which is an of­fence that car­ries a min­i­mum sen­tence of three years.

When asked for his views on the calls, in­clud­ing by the Rasta­far­ian com­mu­nity, for re­peal of the law gov­ern­ing the pos­ses­sion of cannabis, Ram­jat­tan stated that all the laws, and es­pe­cially the penal­ties, need to be re­viewed.

A clear sen­tenc­ing pol­icy, he fur­ther said, needs to be worked out by the Chan­cel­lor and other mem­bers of the ju­di­ciary. An ex­am­ple, he said, would be to limit the penalty to a one-year max­i­mum sen­tence.

He added that pub­lic op­pro­brium of the is­sue is be­ing seen due to the ab­sence of clear sen­tenc­ing guide­lines.

Ac­cord­ing to Ram­jat­tan, mag­is­trates and judges need to be con­scious of pub­lic opin­ion and it is also im­por­tant that the cir­cum­stances of a case be un­der­stood. He said that the en­tire de­bate is more of a sen­tenc­ing mat­ter than a need for the leg­is­la­ture to change the law.

De­spite the doc­trine of the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers, he stated that there is need for com­mu­ni­ca­tion so that the needs and views of the ju­di­ciary and leg­is­la­ture are known to each other. He added that while the sen­tences might not be un­law­ful, there might be in­jus­tices in their ap­pli­ca­tion, es­pe­cially when “big traf­fick­ers are given min­i­mal and sus­pended sen­tences.”

Butts, who was renowned for scor­ing Guyana’s first World Cup qual­i­fier goal against Suri­name in 1976, had re­peat­edly told the court dur­ing the hear­ing that he did not traf­fic drugs but that it was sim­ply his way of life and part of his cul­tural prac­tices.

Stabroek News was told that ef­forts are be­ing made to draft an ap­peal on his be­half.

On Thurs­day, the mem­bers of the Rasta­far­ian com­mu­nity staged a demonstration out­side the At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s of­fice to protest against what they de­scribed as the “un­just laws” against the pos­ses­sion of cannabis, which they want de­crim­i­nalised.

Stabroek News made at­tempts through­out yes­ter­day to con­tact At­tor­ney Gen­eral Basil Wil­liams for a re­ac­tion but was told that he was in meet­ings.

While on the picket line, Ras Simeon, Pres­i­dent of the Rasta­fari Coun­cil of Guyana, said that his re­li­gious rights through which the “holy herb” is utilised are be­ing tram­pled upon.

He noted that dur­ing the elec­tions cam­paign pe­riod, a lot of prom­ises were thrown around but af­ter the new gov­ern­ment en­tered of­fice no change has been sighted on the hori­zon.

In Fe­bru­ary this year, APNU Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Joseph Har­mon had said that an APNU gov­ern­ment would re­view the de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of cannabis. This state­ment was made dur­ing a press con­fer­ence, where he also said that APNU was com­mit­ted to re­view­ing the law gov­ern­ing the use of the drug and the sen­tenc­ing poli­cies that are in place.

Har­mon had noted that the coali­tion re­alised that many of the coun­try’s young men are lan­guish­ing in the prison sys­tem be­cause they were caught with small amounts of the drug and a study needed to be un­der­taken to as­cer­tain if this has been ben­e­fi­cial to the coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to Simeon, the goal of the Rasta­far­ian com­mu­nity is to ease the grip of the law on mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion and consumption. He em­pha­sised that while many Rasta­far­i­ans and nonRasta­far­i­ans have been jailed be­cause of the pos­ses­sion and use of cannabis, there is no link be­tween the sub­stance and violence.

In some parts of the world, mar­i­juana has been de­crim­i­nalised for per­sonal use. Guyanese-born se­cu­rity spe­cial­ist Dr Ivelaw Grif­fith had told this news­pa­per in an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view that he sup­ports the “se­lec­tive de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion” of mar­i­juana as part of the over­all strat­egy for re­spond­ing to the wider drug threat fac­ing the Caribbean re­gion.

He went on to say that coun­tries in the re­gion have long com­plained that it makes lit­tle sense to ar­rest for one mar­i­juana cig­a­rette, sim­ply to spend hun­dreds of hours in the courts that are al­ready over­crowded.

Th­ese com­ments were met with mixed re­ac­tions.

For­mer At­tor­ney­Gen­eral Anil Nand­lall had said that in the con­text of re­newed in­ter­est in the sub­ject, the time was prob­a­bly ripe for the be­gin­ning of a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion on the mat­ter and for pub­lic con­sul­ta­tions to be held.

In terms of the re­vi­sion of the penalty for the pos­ses­sion of mar­i­juana which cur­rently ob­tains in our laws, he said, “again, this had been the sub­ject of on­go­ing de­bate.” He re­minded this news­pa­per of the changes that were made to the law to al­low for per­sons with small quan­ti­ties not to suf­fer im­pris­on­ment as a manda­tory sanc­tion as it was be­fore.

Pres­i­dent David Granger, who at the time was the leader of the op­po­si­tion, had said that the APNU does not have a po­si­tion on the is­sue and had not dis­cussed it but he be­lieved that at­ti­tudes to­wards mar­i­juana and the en­force­ment of the law are cre­at­ing more prob­lems than they are solv­ing.

He drew the nexus be­tween the crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of mar­i­juana and a large prison pop­u­la­tion.

Granger added that in the Guyana con­text the is­sue had to un­dergo a study be­fore any rea­son­able po­si­tions can be reached.

Khem­raj Ram­jat­tan

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