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Insight: The Rastafarian Community’S Fight For Religious Freedom A Tall Order

By MALCOLM STRACHAN

WITH a wave of countries removing bans on marijuana, the subject of legalising or decriminalising the herb has been the subject of much discussion.

Locally, since CARICOM’s town meeting in January 2018 and the formation of the Bahamas National Commission on Marijuana, this debate has caught fire with some notable political figures throwing their support behind more progressive policies that would decriminalise the herb for medicinal, and potentially, recreational use. Seeing the records of many young Bahamians convicted of possessing small amounts of the herb expunged is another widely shared view by supporters of marijuana decriminalisation.

Many people, still severely miseducated on marijuana, are immovable in their opinions. There is still an overwhelming belief that marijuana’s classification as a dangerous drug is warranted. Despite there being no proof to substantiate such danger, many of our citizens still swear by a farce promulgated by American media that marijuana leads its users to kill, rob, rape and pillage.

Marijuana users are viewed to be lazy, criminal-minded leeches on society, despite the fact the herb is used at all levels of society.

Perhaps no member of the community has suffered worse denigration than the Rastafarian community.

It is said that the practice of smoking marijuana as a sacramental form of worship brings Rastas closer to their deity – something they feel should be protected by the Bahamian constitution. Article 22 of the constitution, under the section on Protection of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of the Individual, says: “Except with his consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience, and for the purposes of this Article the said freedom includes freedom of thought and of religion, freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and both in public and in private, to manifest and propagate his religion of belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

“Practice and observance” of their religion surely reveals the community’s frustration, as their inability to do so has understandably led to the Bobo Ashanti, also known as the Ethiopia African Black International Congress’s impending legal action against the government. However, many feel that this is, if not an unwinnable case, one that will certainly be challenging for the group.

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Leader of the Opposition Philip 'Brave' Davis. Photo: Terrel W. Carey/Tribune Staff

Opposition Leader Philip “Brave” Davis said: “I note with interest they are pursuing this avenue but I don’t know whether within our constitutional construct how successful it could be in regard to the fact that the constitution does permit the government to make laws when it comes down to the health and safety of their society.”

Additionally, many feel their timing is opportunistic, as the marijuana commission is readying itself to provide the government with its position by the end of August after having the opportunity to meet with officials on the forefront of marijuana legalisation and decriminalisation policy in Canada and Jamaica – both of which having been reaping massive financial benefits.

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Bishop Delton Fernander, President of the Christian Council. Photo: Terrel W. Carey Sr/Tribune Staff

Bahamas Christian Council president Bishop Delton Fernander has also been critical of the Bobo Ashanti’s lawsuit, saying: “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.”

Certainly, we can understand the government asking members of the Rastafarian movement to be patient at this stage. However, we should also appreciate that the Rastafarian community has been waiting for far longer than the year and a half since this subject has been in the media for the government to make the initial step toward relaxing the country’s marijuana policies. Rather, this is an 80-year-long grievance against a community that has been persecuted and unfairly judged by their brothers and sisters.

Unfortunately, though, it is doubtful that a lack of clear verbiage in the constitution will be the lynchpin that wins this case. Furthermore, by Rastafarian priest Philip Blyden’s own admission, this was a difficult case to find a lawyer to take since the 1990s.

This said, it’s obvious that for this group, there is no time like the present to throw a haymaker in the fight to protect its religious freedom. After no response from Minster of Health Duane Sands to a letter penned by attorney Wayne Munroe QC, it was reported last week that the group would file a lawsuit against the government in the coming days.

Throughout the summer leading up to the commission’s advice to the government, this is surely one to watch.

There is no time like the present to get on the side of progress. Hopefully the critical thinkers in the room will step to the forefront and encourage the government take a giant step forward and legalise and decriminalise marijuana.

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