Deputy Progressive Liberal Party leader Chester Cooper.
By RIEL MAJOR
Tribune Staff Reporter
PROGRESSIVE Liberal Party deputy leader Chester Cooper said Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis should do more than just talk about marijuana decriminalisation, adding the Minnis administration should be drafting the necessary law changes for debate in Parliament as soon as possible.
While he welcomed the prime minister’s recently announced stance on the issue, Mr Cooper said Dr Minnis was “late again” as other public figures have previously expressed progressive views on the matter and called for reform.
“In March 2018, in the House of Assembly, I called for the legalisation of medicinal marijuana,” Mr Cooper said in a statement. “In May, I publicly called in the House of Assembly for the legalisation of medical marijuana and the decriminalisation of small amounts of marijuana, as well as the expungement of criminal records for simple possession. Many of my FNM counterparts laughed. At the Progressive Liberal Party’s convention in June of this year, I urged us to leap forward as a nation on this issue.
“Our party leader has also expressed his support for this position. While many Bahamians suffered, and continue to so do, under a condemnable policy and statute approach, the government dithers awaiting a delayed report from the Marijuana Commission. The same commission the prime minister says he does not expect to report anything significantly different from the CARICOM Commission on Marijuana. That commission has come to the same conclusion as I have, and now the prime minister. Marijuana should be treated as a controlled substance and not a dangerous drug. The Free National Movement has sat on its hands while the Rehabilitation of Offenders Committee, the law governing such being created, passed and gazetted by the Progressive Liberal Party, remained unconstituted. The prime minister must do more than talk. It is his duty to act on his convictions and lead. The prime minister should have already directed his attorney general to draft the necessary legal reforms.
“And they should be brought to Parliament. I am ready to debate this issue in the House of Assembly at any time. We need to move on from this punitive practice of denying those in need of medical treatment. We must end this persecution of those who are only interested in using marijuana for recreational and religious practices,” he added.
Despite his support for relaxed laws surrounded marijuana, Mr Cooper said there should be guidelines, such as ticketing for public use of marijuana and laws to ensure it is not used by those underage, or operating a vehicle or heavy equipment.
Meanwhile PLP Chairman Fred Mitchell has questioned Dr Minnis’ motive of choosing now to openly express his support for expunging criminal records of people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana.
In an interview with The Tribune, Mr Mitchell said the PLP finds the prime minister’s announcement surprising given the timing of the remarks.
“We find it surprising that the announcement came from the PM before the (Marijuana) Commission appointed by the government has reported. We hope that this is not meant to be a distraction from the host of negative issues facing the FNM but a genuine effort at reform,” he said.
“The PLP in principle has advocated changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. The (PLP’s) deputy leader has spoken up for decriminalising marijuana. We need to know the details.”
Democratic National Alliance Chairman Omar Smith also released a statement on the matter, criticising the government “for using old tactics of deflection” whenever the FNM is “called out” on national issues.
In a press statement, Mr Smith criticised the prime minister for using the marijuana debate to take attention away from the FNM administration’s unpopular decisions, such as a rising national debt and plans to borrow $650m for Bahamas Power and Light to be offset by higher electricity bills.
The statement added: “Bahamians see this for what it is - another attempt to grab a headline and distract us from their disastrous governance. The leader of the PLP has also just recently discovered his support for the decriminalisation of marijuana. The FNM and PLP are grasping for straws while the Bahamian people suffer. Neither of the two parties campaigned on marijuana.”
On Sunday, Dr Minnis said he supports expunging criminal records of people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana.
A week earlier, Dr Minnis became the first sitting prime minister to publicly support some form of marijuana decriminalisation, saying that in addition to decriminalising possession of small amounts of the substance, he wants it legalised for medicinal and/or scientific purposes.