By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
ATTORNEY General Carl Bethel yesterday said legal action from the Rastafarian community over their right to sacramental use of cannabis, has an “extremely slim” chance at success and should have been delayed to wait on the outcome from the national Marijuana Commission.
Meanwhile, Bahamas Christian Council President Delton Fernander has characterised the legal threat as a “crafty way to force the government’s hand” towards legalisation.
However, legal counsel for the group, Wayne Munroe, QC, told The Tribune he is gearing up for a legal battle he has been waiting to wage since he left law school in the 80s.
Mr Munroe added the government’s Marijuana Commission was nothing more than a thinly veiled probe into the pros and cons of “smoking dope for fun”.
“I have been looking for some Rasta with the courage to do this,” Mr Munroe said. “They said the same thing about our battle with the Muslim on the Defence Force, and what happened with that? It went all the way to the Privy Council who affirmed his religious freedom.”
He was referring to a constitutional dispute between the Royal Bahamas Defence Force and former officer Gregory Laramore, who refused to participate in a Christian prayer service and was disciplined for it.
“It’s a mental thing,” Mr Munroe continued.
“If the proposition was should Christians worship freely in the Bahamas, would anybody wait until the government decides if they can do what they already have a right to do?
“You see Rastas hauled before the courts on a possession charge and you hear a magistrate tell them they must stop smoking marijuana, what type of nonsense is that?”
The Bobo Ashanti - formally known as the Ethiopia Africa Black International Congress (EABIC) - gave the government 10 days to indicate a willingness to grant a licence for the cultivation, possession and supply of Indian hemp or face a lawsuit on the grounds that a refusal breaches their constitutional right to religious freedom.
That deadline expires on Wednesday, but the AG’s position - coupled with comments made by Health Minister Dr Duane Sands in the House of Assembly last week - makes it clear the matter will not be resolved without legal action.
The health minister maintained the government’s position that it would not consider the issuance of “multiple licences” under the Dangerous Drugs Act during this consultative period as it would circumvent the work of the commission.
The commission has been granted a three-month extension to complete its work after missing its April deadline.
Yesterday, Mr Bethel said: “Everybody has a right to assert a claim to whatever right they feel that they have. The law is the law, it has been the same law since before independence so I’m not entirely sure…they have extremely slim prospects of any success and they may be better advised to wait for the national consultation and determination on what we’re going to do.”
The call to suspend legal action until the Marijuana Commission has completed its report was also echoed by its co-chair, Bishop Simeon Hall.
The EABIC’s legal letter argues that Roman Catholic and Anglican churches are allowed to give alcohol to confirmed minors as a religious sacrament while Rastafarians are criminalised.
It also underscores the Dangerous Drugs Act that gave the health minister responsibility for the control of Indian hemp and the other dangerous drugs specified in the act.
For his part, Mr Fernander said while he did not wish to alienate the Rastafarian community, there was a clear loophole that needed to be addressed before any resolution could be achieved.
He said the BCC would be closely monitoring legal arguments presented in court.
“I believe the difference being put forth is not all churches serve alcohol for their sacrament,” Mr Fernander said, “and for those confirmed youths it’s distinguished how young you can be to partake. Obviously the Rastafarians have a right to partake in their sacrament, but they don’t have the right to partake in their sacrament that’s illegal.”
Mr Fernander continued: “It’s a crafty way to force the government’s hand but then the whole country has to legalise. And the challenge to their argument if it is approved and legalised that way is everyone will say they’re Rastafarian - here is a loophole. We don’t want to alienate the Rastas but we must be very careful in arguments we bring.”
Yesterday, Mr Munroe insisted cannabis was not illegal and accessible to vets and dentists upon application, and as such, the only determination that needed to be made was how to set up proper controls. He underscored his clients were not asking for the issuance of a licence.
The outspoken QC said the official response to his client’s appeal indicated a level of incompetence and lack of understanding of religious freedom.
“I can’t countenance people not respecting other people’s faith,” Mr Munroe continued, “it is something we should be ashamed of as Bahamians at any time. We talk about how the Eleutheran Adventurers came here because of religious persecution - well what are we doing to these fellas?
“Why talk about we gotta go to court,” Mr Munroe said, “why not talk about what are the control measures we’re going to put in place. Instead, they want us to go to court, we succeed, then they advocate for a right to put a sensible thing in place, and then what?
“(The Marijuana Commission), all they talking about is smoking dope for fun, and them trying to dress it up as anything other than smoking dope for fun is disingenuous, which is really dangerous.”
Mr Munroe made it clear he was against recreational use, noting the impact legalisation would have on drug use among rebellious minors.
Yesterday, a representative on the Marijuana Commission - who spoke on the condition of anonymity - told The Tribune the body was “scattered” in its opinion on the way forward.
Pointing out that the Rastafarian community has representation on the committee, the commission representative suggested the legal threat was directly linked to dissatisfaction with the status of deliberations.
“There is no real unity,” the commission member said, “no real message. So if they feel they are being left out of the presentation, they may have been advised to force the government to legalise this.”