By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Tribune Chief Reporter
CHIEF Justice Brian Moree has said decriminalising small amounts of marijuana possession is a "policy issue" that if made, would alleviate some of the case load from the court system.
Stressing he needed to be extremely careful in speaking about the controversial issue, Chief Justice Moree told The Tribune the matter solely rests with executive and legislative branches of government.
He was asked recently about his view on expunging records of those convicted of possession of small amounts of cannabis, as has been repeatedly echoed by Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis who has maintained that his government is aiming to change the way the country treats people sent to prison for the offence.
Chief Justice Moree was also asked if he believed the change, if implemented, would impact many people.
"The courts may at some point in the future be required to consider cases that will commence in respect to this whole matter and so as chief justice and indeed as judicial officers, we must not be expressing personal views about these matters because that might affect our ability to deal with cases if and when they come into the courts," he said during an interview at his Bank Lane office.
"So this is a matter where judicial officers have to exercise some restraint."
He continued: "…(This) is really a question of policy for the executive and legislative branches of the government than the judicial branch, because as you know, the courts don't get involved in policy. We get involved in deciding cases and deciding the law so I don't think it's appropriate for us to engage in a discussion about the social policies.
"Having said that, what I can briefly address is the statistical impact of these drug cases on the court system.
"Now we don't have the empirical data available to us, but I think it's safe to say that currently quite a large number of cases that come before the criminal courts relating to possession of drugs and specifically marijuana sometimes in quite small quantities sometimes in large quantities.
"I would have thought that any decision by the government and the legislature to decriminalise possession of certain quantities of marijuana would almost inevitably result in a reduction of some of the cases that are currently filed in the courts. I must say that's a fairly logical and uncontroversial statement. If today something is a crime and tomorrow you decriminalise it and it's no longer a crime, then that is going to result in the reduction of a number of cases and I think that's simply a logical extrapolation of the policy decision by the government."
He also said: "Certainly to the extent that it does result in a reduction of cases within a certain category that will provide time hopefully to deal with other matters."
The Bahamas National Commission on Marijuana has recommended that possession of up to one ounce of marijuana be decriminalised for people 21 and over.
"However, it is recommended that further consideration is needed in establishing the age that a person can be in possession of cannabis without a criminal record," the BNCM's report tabled at Parliament last week says.
The commission recommends that the amount decriminalised be reviewed every two years following comprehensive analysis and impact studies.
The commission did not take a view on whether cannabis should be legalised for recreational use, a matter that divided members.
Meanwhile Dr Minnis told The Tribune last week that he wants a "complete overhaul of the rehabilitation process" for prisoners, declaring too many people have been deprived of their freedom and future.
Dr Minnis' comments came after he met representatives of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Committee, which has the power to expunge records of young people and first-time offenders who meet criteria. The committee's work is a part of a package which officials hope will eventually include a parole system that would allow some prisoners to receive early release from prison.
Dr Minnis said: "We want to give our countrymen a freedom and a future they have been deprived of because of minor offences and in some cases, decades old offences.
"We need to reform the whole system so they can have a clean slate and their lives can begin again. We are a government of expanding freedom and creating better futures."
Dr Minnis has especially stressed the role the Rehabilitation of Offenders Committee will play in expunging the records of people convicted of marijuana possession crimes.