By Frederick Smith, QC
No one should go to prison for smoking a joint. No life should be ruined over a small amount of weed. Marijuana is not the devil and, like certain other recreationally enjoyed substances like alcohol, most humans are perfectly capable of using it responsibly. In certain contexts, it is beneficial for your health and in an increasing number of countries, it is becoming legalised for recreational and medical use – generating massive revenue returns in the process.
Most right-thinking Bahamians know all this, yet our society continues to vilify, hunt down and destroy young people over this relatively trivial pastime, condemning them to lengthy prison sentences as if they were hardened criminals. On this issue like so many others, The Bahamas is simply stuck in the past.
A hangover from the 1970s
There was a time when a zero tolerance approach to marijuana was considered cutting edge. The term “War on Drugs” was coined by a US journalist in 1971 shortly after President Nixon declared drug abuse public enemy number one. The prevailing view at the time was narcotics in general were a scourge on society and must be eradicated by strong action – interdiction, arrest and prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. Users were weak, deviant, morally degraded and essentially deserved what they got at the hands of the authorities. Countless substances, differing from each other in virtually every way imaginable were all lumped together and referred to under the category of “drugs”.
Over the last 50 years, many of the underlying assumptions that fed this perspective have been debunked. Substance abuse is now widely and rightfully seen as a mental health challenge, not a crime, and users are recognised as victims, not perpetrators. There is also an appreciation that certain substances which were once vilified can have numerous heath benefits and qualify as medicine to treat several conditions. Chief among these is of course marijuana. Meanwhile tall tales of the terrible consequences – that it kills brain cells, is a ‘gateway drug’, etc. – are laughed off by today’s experts.
Gradually, the rest of the world is coming to see that marijuana is not some demon that will steal away the minds of their children, but a complex substance which, like countless others consumed by humans, can have benefits if used responsibly and lead to negative affects if abused. The light has not yet shone on The Bahamas, however. We remain mired in the Dark Ages as usual and the resulting effects on our society are more egregious than most realise.
Overwhelming the system
Thousands of young people in The Bahamas today smoke marijuana; perhaps tens of thousands. Whether you like it or not, this is a cultural fact that simply cannot be avoided. When caught with whatever the police arbitrarily happen to believe is “too much”, usually all but the tiniest amount, they can be charged with a serious offence and face years in jail. Because use is so prevalent, and because users tend to be young, comparatively non-violent and generally cooperative, marijuana possession charges make up a very large percentage of the cases before the courts. This, in a judicial system already overwhelmed and struggling to cope, with individuals facing serious charges waiting months and even years on remand – though supposedly innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law.
The arrests themselves probably make up a large part of the work of police officers who, instead of going after violent offenders, tend to prefer to target marijuana users as they represent a comparatively easy way to rack up arrest numbers without undue effort or risk of violence.
Unfortunately, our aggressive enforcement and punishment policies for marijuana possession have destroyed and continue to destroy countless good people’s lives. The predominant victims of our flawed approach come from lower income families – a sector of society that has found escape from daily hardships in alcohol and other narcotics throughout history and across every nation on the planet. Meanwhile, habitual users of more serious and potentially deadly drugs like cocaine, tend to hail from the wealthier sectors of society. Safely ensconced in their gated communities and behind armies of attorneys, they are all but immune from police action.
While the privileged continue to do as they please in their safety and comfort, unconscionably long remand and or prison sentences in some of the most harsh, violent and depraved conditions imaginable at Fox Hill Prison are the fate for the hapless poor teenager who merely sought a few hours of harmless escape in marijuana. Inevitably, when released such victims will be very changed; afraid, angry, frustrated, resentful and emotionally broken by this harrowing experience. They will also have criminal records and will find it near impossible to secur a job, open a bank account, or go back to school. They will be rejected and stigmatised, outcasts for the rest of their lives.
In the circumstances, it is not unreasonable to expect these victims to lash out, to hurt others or engage in criminal or anti-social behaviour in an effort to quell their emotional turmoil or even just to survive. Society’s response is to vilify them as enemies of the state, forget them on remand or throw the book at them and lock them up for lengthy periods. The Bahamas has become a factory that uses the raw material of harmless youngsters to produce hardened, violent criminals in a seeming endless cycle.
The rest of the world
We are talking about a substance that is already fully legal in Canada and Uruguay, and soon it seems, will also be legal in Mexico. Its consumption, but not cultivation, is legal in the Republic of Georgia and in South Africa. It has been decriminalised in 10 American states and the District of Colombia, with more on the way. Meanwhile, its medical use is allowed in 33 US states and 13 other countries.
Just last summer, the CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana recommended the declassification of marijuana as a dangerous drug. It has already been decriminalised in Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda.
These changing attitudes are not a coincidence; they follow the evolving evidence uncovered by science. Recent research asserts that marijuana can improve quality of life by improving sleep, increasing appetite and reducing pain for people with chronic conditions, especially when these conditions do not respond to conventional treatments. It is, by all accounts, an extremely safe substance with benign and largely avoidable side effects. Marijuana has never been linked to death by overdose, despite being the most widely used illegal drug in the world. The most adverse effects are from the act of smoking, but a number of alternative delivery systems are now available.
Apart from the human benefits, the process of decriminalisation and legalisation has opened up hitherto unimaginable opportunities for financial profit, for both nations and intrepid entrepreneurs. Take for example, what has happened in Colorado.
In 2014, the first year of legalisation, combined recreational and medical sales totalled nearly $700 million. By 2018 that number had jumped to more than $1.5 billion. In the last five years combined, the state has sold $6 billion worth of marijuana.
Sellers are making a killing, but so is the local government. In that same period, tax revenue is said to have grown by 266 percent – from $67 million in 2014 to $247.4 million in 2017. These tax gains have been spent in areas such as public schools, social services, employment boosting efforts and health care.
Contrary to what the fear-mongers projected, there was no measurable increase in use among middle school and high school students and traffic citations for driving under the influence actually went down.
The courts had to deal with 6,000 fewer cases per year thanks to the change, while the total increase in the number of adults reporting marijuana use went up by only two percent. Clearly, those who wanted to were using it anyway; all Colorado legislators did was recognise and accept this ineradicable fact, then find a way to employ it as a benefit rather than a drag on society.
The Bahamas could learn so much from this example. We are ideally placed off the eastern coast of the United States and just north of the Caribbean to service two emerging markets; and boasting ideal weather conditions for marijuana growth, we could take this industry by storm. It would take serious regulation and even more serious enforcement of quality control and proper accounting practices, but if the government can pull it off with the illegal numbers racket, they can certainly do it with marijuana.
This country has everything it needs to pioneer this extremely lucrative industry in the region while at the same time saving countless youngsters from terrible fate. We have a class of well-educated, industrious and hungry entrepreneurs capable of making The Bahamas world renowned for marijuana tourism - both medical and recreational. We have the land, we have the climate, we have the location. Sadly, we still lack the vision and the will.
We could truly pursue a “Green Economy”! And, provision could be made for growing it in certain designated areas, like Grand Bahama, to spur economic activity and create jobs and actual exports.
Our own worst enemy
On the issue of marijuana legalisation, like so many others, our failure to take initiative is the only real barrier to social progress and financial success.
The world changes all the time and yet we stand still. Surrounded by the wreckage of hopelessly outmoded, woefully misdirected and shockingly inhumane polices that achieve absolutely nothing while destroying lives and making a mockery of justice, we seem chronically incapable of acting in our own best interests. We are unable to think intrepidly, to grasp opportunity. We are a nation allergic to change.
This is precisely why, though remarkably well placed to be a leader in global innovation, this country continually finds itself playing catch-up, if ever, on so many fronts to more courageous, ambitious and forward thinking nations. Despite ideal geographical location, political stability and abundant resources, both human and natural, we remain our own worst enemy