Waiting to Exhale – Safeguarding our future through responsible socio-legal policy on marijuana
Responding to the increasing calls from the public, NGOs and other stakeholders in the region and amidst the changing global environment, the Caricom Conference of Heads of Government at its 25th Inter-Sessional Meeting convened in St Vincent and the Grenadines, 10 -11 March 2014, mandated the establishment of a commission to interrogate the issue of possible reform to the legal regimes regulating cannabis/ marijuana in Caricom countries. The Heads were deeply concerned that thousands of young persons throughout the region had suffered incarceration for marijuana use and consumption and many, after their first experiences with the law, resolved to continue with crime as a way of life. Inconsistent applications of the law had led to deep resentment and non-cooperation with law enforcement agencies.
They were mindful too, that for years, Caribbean citizens had promoted the value of marijuana for its medicinal properties. Increasingly, these claims appeared to be confirmed by emerging scientific evidence. There was also a concern that without action, the region could be left behind because of fast-paced global trends toward law reform in terms of cannabis/marijuana. Already, several states in the United States had decriminalised the use of marijuana for medicinal uses. Uruguay, a sister OAS state, had legalised the consumption of marijuana.
Caricom Heads recognised that unanimity or coherence of legal and social policy among Member States might help illuminate difficult policy issues in non-partisan political ways and help cushion the negative impact of reservoirs of controversy from opposing stakeholders in the policy debate. It was also recognised that there was an uneven dialogue existing in the region. Indeed, some Caricom countries had already embarked on plans to change the existing legal policy on marijuana. However, there was concern that a ‘go it alone’ approach might cause instabilities in other Caricom countries, so that a regional policy approach was desirable. A regional approach would also enhance the legitimacy of any policy reform initiatives. In addition, an establishment of regional social and legal policy with Caricom existing within a unified position of solidarity was seen as an effective way to interface with countries outside of the region on what is a delicate issue and to meet the challenges of the existing international treaty framework on cannabis.
Caricom Heads resolved to proceed with care, mindful of the need to capture the complex, multi-faceted socio-economic, legal dimensions of cannabis/marijuana legal policy and to divorce this sensitive issue from the politically partisan stranglehold that often accompanies calls for change. These include referenda, which have often provided fertile ground for the ‘hijacking’ of important social issues by partisan agendas.
Those who supported the establishment of a regional commission favoured an approach that was grounded in comprehensive research, objective, honest, evaluation and a balanced public policy framework which a regional commission of independent, inclusive experts could achieve. The commission undertook its task mindful of the responsibilities and imperatives which had been bestowed upon it and with the seriousness that it deserved.
An important part of the commission’s mandate was to undertake national consultations in Member States to harness the views of the Caricom public. The depth of interest, passion and knowledge exhibited by Caribbean peoples that accompanied the work of the commission was perhaps surprising to some commissioners and even the policy-makers who attended packed public meetings. They spoke to broad issues, moving way beyond the narrow constraints of medical marijuana, to embrace notions of social justice, human rights, economics, regional hegemony and their right to health. As the Heads of Governments meeting drew near and the public got wind of the finalisation of the eagerly anticipated report to the Heads, the commission was flooded with additional submissions from across the region.
The law on cannabis/ marijuana is clearly an issue of deep social significance to Caribbean peoples. The commission is pleased and indeed honoured that it was able, through the wise decision of the Caricom Heads of Government in 2014, to be the mechanism through which these important voices were heard, an expression of genuine democracy. It hopes that this report will be an important developmental tool centred on human rights and democratic ideals consonant with the sustainable development goals (SDGs) that Caricom has embraced enthusiastically and that it will bring meaningful change to Caribbean peoples.
by Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, Chair, Caricom Regional Commission on Marijuana, on behalf of the commission, DPhil (Oxon); LLM (Cambridge); LLB (UWI); Attorney-at-Law
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