Pubdate: Fri, 20 Jul 2012
Source: Amandala (Belize)
Copyright: 2012 Amandala


We're an independent country, 30 years and running. So theoretically 
we should be able to decide our own policies and programs. Sadly, we 
don't always. Sad truth, we can't always - geopolitical realities, 
economic constraints, and so on. It is, therefore, a welcome thing when we do.

The decision by the government to consider the decriminalization of 
marijuana is a bold and long overdue move. And while in the United 
States decriminalization of marijuana has been picking up steam over 
the last few years, and Argentina and Mexico just a few years ago 
approved a similar initiative, Belize, we believe, would be the first 
country in the Caribbean to so do.

In Jamaica there has been much talk. A national commission was set up 
in 2001 by the then People's National Party government, and while 
there is reportedly widespread support in Jamaica for 
decriminalization, the reality is that successive governments have 
not had the fortitude to implement it. Last year the Jamaica Labor 
Party government set up a committee of top government officials to 
review the issue, but again, nothing came of it. Elections came, and 
government changed.

In fairness to the Jamaicans, incidentally, citizens are rarely 
arrested and charged over the possession of small quantities of 
marijuana in their home, for personal use.

The truth is the United States leans heavily on smaller countries, 
particularly those like Jamaica, who is reportedly the largest 
marijuana exporter to the US, and Belize, which the US considers to 
be a major drugs transshipment point.

The US will be hard-pressed to be publicly disagreeable, though, not 
with all of 17 US states having already decriminalized marijuana, 
starting as far back as 1973 with Oregon. Their public position, as 
it were in the case of Jamaica last year, will be that it's an 
internal issue and so they cannot comment on either the debate or the 
outcome, but privately, pressure will be brought to bear.

It is in that vein, that we find the government's stated public 
comments on the issue bold, and welcoming, with the stated intention 
to decriminalize, "not to legalize the offence."

With legalization, marijuana use and production would be allowed, and 
government would then regulate and tax the product. Conceptually, 
farmers, manufacturers, and distributors would be taxed on cannabis 
production, potentially bringing a huge windfall to the treasury of 
the respective nation-state. But that's not what we are dealing with here.

Under the new proposal by the Belize government, people who are 
caught with small amounts of marijuana will still be punished. But 
the punishment would fit the crime.

At present if you are caught with less than 60 grams of marijuana, 
you can be fined up to $50,000, or imprisoned for 3 years, or both. 
Of course, no one is ever fined the maximum amount, but in any given 
year, there are over 400 prisoners on remand in the Hattieville 
Prison, the majority for cannabis possession, and the majority - 
young, black and poor. A charge for marijuana possession in Belize is 
not like a murder charge: there are convictions more times than not. 
293 alone were convicted of cannabis possession in the first nine 
months of 2008.

What a conviction does is stigmatize these young men for life. A 
stain on your police record means you can't get a job, at least not 
so easily. Very few businesspersons will take a chance on you. 
Without a job, a life of crime oftentimes becomes your only way out. 
In prison you become "institutionalized;" chances are you will end up 
right back there before long. It becomes a cycle.

Under government's new proposal, if you are caught with 10 grams or 
less of marijuana then you will get what's akin to a traffic ticket. 
You will be subject to a fine, presumably $100 or so and mandatory 
drug education, but "no imprisonment." Note that 10 grams is 
considerably less than the amount decriminalized in most of the 
aforementioned 17 US states.

We will expect there to be stricter punishments for repeat offenders, 
for marijuana possession on or near school grounds, and for people 
smoking marijuana in public, especially in the presence of children 
and adolescents. There has to be.

We would also hope that under this new proposal we would step up our 
drug prevention and drug treatment efforts. The NDACC has to be as 
ubiquitous as the GSU.

There can be no denying: marijuana has harmful effects, the full 
extent of which is debatable. But what is known for sure is that it's 
a drug that temporarily causes lethargy, memory impairment, loss of 
motor skills, increased heart rate, and so on and so forth.

And while we don't know of any case of marijuana overdose in humans, 
and it is not known to induce violent tendencies in its users, 
marijuana does increase the likelihood of accidents when driving 
under its influence.

In other words, we are not recommending that our people, especially 
our young, go out and "blaze a blunt" - not at all. But we are 
dealing with the real here. Thousands of Belizeans still smoke 
marijuana, harmful effects and all. And among those thousands, there 
are many people in high places who smoke, but they never ever end up 
behind bars. The law, as presently constructed and implemented, 
unfairly targets a segment of our population that has long been 
marginalized and deprived. Changing that is not only just, it's long overdue.

The question then arises - what about all those hundreds, if not 
thousands, of youths who over the years have been tagged with a 
tarnished police record? What can we do about them? And we are not 
talking about repeat offenders here. We are talking about the 
Southside youth who got into trouble once with a stick or two of 
weed, and today he can't get a job, can't tend his family, because of 
this blot on his resume. Something has to be done; those records 
should be expunged. We think it's the right thing to do.

There is also an economic component to this move. It is a well 
documented fact that the decriminalization of marijuana saves, and 
earns participating governments money. There are fewer prisoners to 
house, less time and resources spent on processing and prosecuting 
youths, and more fines to be collected.

In this regard, there is something to watch. Three years ago the 
prison population was in excess of 1500, and Kolbe's budget from 
government was $7.1 million. Today, by their own admission, the 
prison population is around 1300, and that budget has inched up to 
$7.2 million. That's just not right. Those savings should go to youth 
programs, with a portion going to drug education and drug treatment programs.

Of course, not everyone will agree with decriminalization. Some will 
say marijuana is a "gateway" drug, and that decriminalizing it will 
increase the usage; some will even say that crime will go up. There 
is no evidence, as far as we know, to support those arguments, and as 
we have pointed out, there are a number of states and countries that 
have done this before. The studies are ample.

The government, in its press release dated Monday, July 16, had 
indicated that Friday, July 20, 2012, is the deadline for concerned 
citizens to express their views on this "sensitive issue." We believe 
the time is too short. The government will need to extend the date, 
and possibly hold some town meetings. There is quite a bit of 
misinformation out there. For sure, this will not be law overnight. 
There is a process to follow. It is written.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom