To Legalise or not to Legalise?
The debate over the decriminalisation of the cannabis (herb) known as marijuana and the region’s preparedness to do such have sparked voluminous discourse. Several Caribbean researchers and economists are purporting decriminalizing it and exploring its use for medicinal purposes in an effort to boost the region’s sluggish economy. These assertions are, in part, based on the premise that 1) several studies, some arbitrary in nature, have shown that cannabis consumption has been linked to increased physical health and pain reduction in relation to specific diseases such as cancer and HIV, and 2) prosecuting criminals, especially those associated with the ‘petty’ case of marijuana possession, not only congests the legal system, but also exhausts a large portion of the fiscal budget.
I propose we ponder on three critical facts that will hopefully highlight the need for robust regional research.
Firstly, within the Caribbean and other developing nations, age and gender are considered two of many predictive factors in the use of illicit drugs. The World Drug Report 2012 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime cites that “cannabis continues to be the world’s most widely used illicit substance, with between 119 million and 224 million cannabis users worldwide. Furthermore, annual prevalence of cannabis use remained stable in 2010.” Globally, illicit drug use is largely a youth phenomenon, with prevalence rates gradually increasing through the teens and peaking among persons aged 18-25. Another key characteristic of illicit drug use throughout the world is that more males than females consume such drugs.
Secondly, it should be noted that all psychoactive drugs affect the mind and body in one way or another and have the propensity for addiction. The potency of this effect, however, depends on the category to which the drug belongs. Many substances, including caffeine, tobacco and alcohol, contain psychoactive properties which cause alterations in mood and consciousness. Psychoactive drugs such as caffeine and tobacco are stimulants and account for fleeting improvements in mental and physical states. However, they do not impede perceptual abilities. Alcohol, a depressant, reduces anxiety while inducing feelings of euphoria. Cannabis, however, belongs to the category of psychoactive drugs referred to as hallucinogens. These drugs engender significant changes in perception, thought processes and conscious states often resulting in visual, auditory and olfactory hallucinations. The conundrum faced is the fact that not every individual who consumes psychoactive drugs experiences psychotic symptoms. It has been widely established though that an individual may be predisposed to these symptoms given their genetic composition and family history.
Another focal point in this debate is the strain of cannabis being proposed for legislation. There are three main strains: Cannabis Indica, Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Ruderalis. The Indica and Sativa strains are the two most commonly grown. Cannabis potency is generally measured given the amount of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the cannabis strain. Whereas THC is considered the main psychoactive component in the cannabis plant, responsible for impairing perceptual and sensory processes, Cannabidiol (CBD) is considered to have greater medical properties. Scientific research has shown that Cannabis Sativa strains possess a higher level of THC compared to CBD, while the Cannabis Indica species has a higher level of CBD compared to THC. Moreover, the rise in indoor cultivation of cannabis among users is often related to an increase in cannabis potency especially for recreational use. Given these findings, will the proposed legislation consider the varying strains of cannabis as well as the THC:CBD chemical balance of each strain?
It is the position of many that the legal procedure from arrest to conviction for small quantities of Class A drugs, to which marijuana belongs, is both tedious and somewhat archaic. The Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act – CAP 3.02 of the Revised Laws of St Lucia 2008 - clearly states that it is unlawful “for a person to have a controlled drug in his/ her possession.” An additional charge of “intending to supply the drug to another or drug trafficking” can be laid if the quantity found amounts to more than 15 grams. Individuals in breach of these laws are liable to 3 years imprisonment or a fine. Simply put, it is possible (but unlikely given a magistrate’s discretion) for an individual to face 3 years imprisonment for possession of 1 to 2 “joints”, bearing in mind that the period from arrest to conviction could take as long as 6 months given the multiple hearings involved.
It would be ludicrous to deny that such charges, for so small a quantity, do in fact significantly clog the already constrained legal system. However, there are two major issues at hand: the reduction of judicial congestion by eliminating minor cases while simultaneously protecting against character assassination of many young men, and also the strengthening of the nation’s labour force via preservation of the mental well-being of the society. One cannot or should not be substituted for the other. In our haste to alleviate one problem, we must guard against creating another given the paucity of mental health provisions in Saint Lucia. Prudency demands therefore, that mental health services be improved and that regional research regarding the various strains of cannabis be conducted prior to the legalizing of this drug to cushion potential repercussions.
Ms. Ginelle Nelson Consultant Clinical Psychologist
/ Managing Director (PsyDA Consultancy Ltd)