By Alva Solomon
“WE HAVE to get to the stage where we can have this broad spectrum of Guyanese to say “legalise it.” Those were some words of advice given by Attorney-at-law Nigel Hughes when he addressed a gathering at the National Library on uses of hemp, an industrial strain of cannabis.The Neurvana Group, a subsidiary of the Alesie Group of Companies, brought the economics of the plant to the fore when the group detailed the benefits of hemp to the economy of the country last Friday. But it was the presentation of Hughes which drew a mainly Rastafarian audience to the event.
Hughes informed those gathered: “In terms of fighting and getting to a place where this is to become legalised, I think we need to be strategic and we need to take this on one step at a time, so we can get one victory and then another victory.”
He said there exists a feeling of “sympathy” within the society, which evolved from the Vibert “Durdy” Butts case, the football hero who was sent to jail and later released on $350,000 bail for being in possession of marijuana. Hughes urged those gathered to take advantage of the scenario, noting that initial steps should be aimed at the removal of the mandatory penalty which currently exists.
Currently, the narcotics law provides that if one is caught in possession of 15 grams of cannabis, one is deemed to be trafficking the drug. That individual would then be sent to prison and serve a minimum of three and a maximum of five years.
Hughes said that, at this stage, legislation had to be drafted. “Get an MP (Member of Parliament) to move it to Parliament, ensure there is enough public support, and change the mandatory imprisonment and get persons to support change in relation to imprisonment”, he told the audience.
He informed that illicit drugs are classified into various categories, and in most countries cannabis is not classified in the same category as cocaine. In Guyana, both substances are classified in the same category. The law also provides that one is mandatorily sent to jail, unless special circumstances prevent this.
According to Hughes, this is where the “police started to get rich.” He said the police would pick up persons at the corners, send them to court, and because they are unable to afford a lawyer, they serve time in prison.
He then briefly described the prison environment as he posited that this was where hardened criminals were born. “Once you walk into that place you got to survive,” he declared, and added that all the skills that convicts learn to survive are learnt in prison. ”So what we do is that we take a whole set of young people, put them in prison and then educate them”, he said, noting that in the remand center, everyone eats, sleeps and communes together. Once they commune, it is more than likely the inmates will share their knowledge. He said that some may be innocently exposed to that environment; and after jail, they become stigmatized and no one shows any willingness to offer them jobs.
Hughes told the attentive audience that many were outraged at the incarceration of Butts, and many have now realized that there exists a system which can send someone who is a national hero to prison for having the quantity of marijuana similar or less than what Butts was convicted for having in his possession. He advised that the first step would be to draft the legislation, which he has already crafted, and this had to reach Parliament by December 17 for a first reading.
“While we are doing that we have to have a public debate on how we move forward”, he said, and persons have to be educated on the issue, while “real data” has to be collected on those imprisoned, including their names and places they worked, among other forms of data.
Hughes told the gathering: “The politicians cannot fight hard data”, and he urged them to gather the data. Responses to such data will create the open views of people and open “their eyes”. He said categorizing of the drugs from the “hard drugs” will be important, and while stakeholders will speak to the issue and give their opinions, the facts will show the real figures of those who use various categories of illicit substances.
Earlier, the Neurvana Group explained in detail the economic benefits of Hemp, a high growing cannabis plant used for industrial purposes.
Hemp has many uses, including being used as food, in making body oils, medicine, fuel, plastics and paper among others, and Neurvana’s President and Co-Founder, Vedjai Doerga, told the gathering that the group had carried out extensive research on the plant. He said that hemp had a history of being an important fibre used in the manufacturing industries for a variety of goods, including feed, body oils, fuel, plastics, paper and clothing. He said the substance was even used to make the interior panels of cars manufactured in Germany.
Doerga said that there was a readily available supplier of seeds of the high-quality substance in Holland, and according to him, the soil type is sent to that nation, where marijuana use and consumption is legal. The agronomists there can determine the types of seeds which can match the soil type sent for analysis. As regard the planting process, he explained that the drug had to be monitored throughout its growth, to ensure its potency was equivalent to the legal limits.
It was noted, too, that trading and planting the fibre leads to employment, and the Alesie Group said it stands ready to pilot such a project should the laws regarding the substance be altered.
The issue of legalization of cannabis has been a topical one throughout the Caribbean. This year, Jamaica relaxed its laws regarding cannabis. On February 25 this year, the Jamaican House of Representatives passed a law decriminalizing possession of up to 2 ounces of cannabis. The new law includes provisions legalizing the cultivation for personal use of up to 5 plants, as well as setting up regulations for the cultivation and distribution of cannabis for medical, religious purposes and natural growth.