August 16, 2000
By Terry Joseph
Professor Kenneth Ramchand, must have felt confident enough to bet that his submission, made during last week's debate on the Dangerous Drugs Bill, would evoke informed and meaningful discussion.
Instead, he discovered that Parliament is not necessarily a place in which you gamble on enlightenment. Consequently, making brave suggestions about decriminalising marijuana use is rendered risky. Judging from remarks made by fellow Senators, Professor Ramchand may have done little more than fuel speculation that his most recent encounter with the herb was not while studying in Jamaica, but more likely in the Chamber's tea-room, just prior to Tuesday's sitting.
By weekend, the once-respected Professor had suffered severe image-modification on radio talk shows. He was dubbed "Senator Spliff" by one daily newspaper and quartered in the editorial of another; almost as if the man had irrationally argued for every convicted rapist and axe-murderer to receive an unconditional pardon or national award.
But as a man of language, indeed public orator of the University of the West Indies, the Professor should best understand the old folk-saying: "You can't give corbeaux sponge cake", or the equally applicable "Gopaul luck is not Seepaul luck."
So even as Senators in the rest of the civilised world actively debate the decriminalisation of marijuana in certain applications, their counterparts here, reveling in cultural complacency, are laughing out loud and shooting down in flames, the only courageous attempt to date to launch serious discussion on the issue.
Mark you, just last April, the Hawaiian Senate approved a Bill allowing people with certain debilitating illnesses (including AIDS and cancer) to legally smoke marijuana to alleviate pain. Seven other American States already allow medicinal use of the herb. Hawaii, however, became the first to apply the concept through legislation instead of voter referendum. Legislatures in 37 US States have passed Bills in support of medicinal use of grass. However, the federal government remains opposed to such concessions and warns physicians that they may lose federally sanctioned privileges for writing prescriptions for controlled substances. They may be barred from participation in Medicare and Medicaid programs and face criminal prosecution for prescribing marijuana.
The British government is yet to agree, but the report of a royal commission, under the chairmanship of Lady Runciman of Doxford, recently found the current penalties for marijuana possession far too harsh. Britain's Police Federation has also said that the current law concerning marijuana was doing more harm than the drug itself and called for a reclassification of such offences, suggesting that possession of small quantities be treated like traffic violations.
Unlike Professor Ramchand's utterances here, those suggestions received wide public support, with the majority of newspapers, including those that traditionally adopt conservative positions, calling for the British Government to change the law.
The Netherlands, Germany and Italy do not prohibit the personal consumption of marijuana, while Spain applies administrative sanctions where the herb is being smoked in a public place. On April 6, the South China Morning Post published excerpts from a police report, which recommended the scrapping of jail terms for possession of soft drugs. The Canadian government licenses persons permitted to smoke marijuana for medicinal relief. And when Health Canada announced a plan earlier this year, to award a contract to a supplier of marijuana for research purposes, tenders were received from more than 165 organisations around the world, including the Mc Gill and Guelph Universities.
But back in our darkened neck of the woods, these matters are still considered either humourous, or simply not worth the political risk. The gateway-drug theory surfaces, suggesting that most people who try marijuana for whatever purpose, will graduate to harder drugs. Somehow, the same argument is conveniently invalid for those who drink liquor, the most widely used drug in the world.
In a broader sense, we are yelling vainly into the wind. Police and politicians frequently trumpet "victories" in the battle against drugs, earning front-page space and public congratulation, although it has become at least noticeable that the actual war is never quite won. What is worse, is that innocent bystanders often get caught in the crossfire, when the gangsters who currently control drug production and distribution cross each other's turf and the real wars begin.
All the current system of supply, demand and law enforcement really does therefore, is push the price and murder-rate up. Add the fact that the lawless drug-barons pay no taxes, then distract disproportionate numbers of police, in the attempt to contain their activities. In the mix, far too many of the policemen are corrupted, inducing even greater depletion of the already dwindling force of dependable officers.
It seems to me that, given the amount of information available on both sides of the marijuana argument, there is at least a basis for debate, among the people who have the courage to engage it.
Saying "no" to even a discussion on the subject is not what we deserve from our Senate.
Terry-J at I-Level