IT always pains me when the lives of productive Guyanese men and women are disrupted and sometimes destroyed because of excessively harsh penalties inflicted on them for being found with minuscule quantities of marijuana.
Many of these people have children and other responsibilities and it is a waste of time and money to prosecute them and jail them for having a few grams of marijuana, and, in doing so, destroy the lives of youths and give them criminal records. This is backward and irrelevant and it is cruel and unusual punishment. We have to do much better than this.
Just this year, we saw glaring foolishness occur in our courts when 27-year-old poultry farmer, Carl Mangal was sentenced to three years imprisonment for possession of just eight grams of marijuana.
We also know of the case of a young man of East Indian descent and another one of African descent, both of whom suffered the same fate for having tiny quantities of marijuana. I remember that the Afro-Guyanese man broke down in court, confused and depressed, not knowing how his children would be cared for. It is clear that usage of marijuana is not linked to any particular ethnicity.
It upsets me because there are persons who commit many outrageous atrocities, but they do not feel the brunt of the law like some of those caught with a little ‘joint’.
That is why I was so excited to hear His Excellency President Brigadier David Granger saying recently that changes are likely to our laws to decriminalise possession of small quantities of marijuana.
But he also pointed out, and quite rightly so, that his government will not be pushed towards legalizing commercial or industrial marijuana production.
His statement follows CARICOM’s Regional Commission on Marijuana report, which recommended the decriminalisation of small amounts of marijuana and a review of its classification as a ‘dangerous drug’ with ‘no value’, in the same category of heroin and LSD.
Just last May, Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo said he will vote in favour of decriminalising possession of small quantities of marijuana and said alternative sentencing such as community service should be considered. He also said that members of his party can vote based on how they feel about this individually as the party will not take a collective decision on the issue. I do not see his party loyalists going against him on this issue.
However, I can’t help but wonder why his Government or the Donald Ramotar Government did not think of doing this. Amazingly, now that they are in Opposition, it seems pertinent for them to say this. But it’s a welcome awakening.
Based on previous public statements, the AFC is also on board. So there is evidence of powerful political support in Guyana for the CARICOM Commission’s recommendations on marijuana. This is great news.
Our jails are terribly overcrowded, so what sense does it make to keep jailing persons held for the petty offence of having a few grams of marijuana? Why keep an added burden on a penal system that has failed us so many times?
We have to modernise our thinking. We have to come up with new and innovative ways of tweaking our systems and getting important institutions, like jails, to work efficiently to do what they are supposed to do. In a previous letter, I suggested that those caught with small quantities of marijuana can be sentenced to do community service and spared a prison record so that they can continue with their lives without far-reaching consequences.
We can also look at offering such persons the option of taking compulsory drug education classes, in which case the charge would be dropped, the marijuana destroyed and they would be free to carry on with their lives. It alarms me that persons who are not inclined towards criminal activities are being forced to learn to survive among hardened criminals. Their families are also affected because society castigates them. This nonsense is causing children to grow up without their fathers.
When those who have families are sentenced to jail and are therefore unable to earn a living, their partner has to struggle with the full burden of meeting financial commitments and providing for the family. The partner may not even be employed and survival becomes a real challenge because Guyana is not like developed countries where citizens can fall back on welfare.
If the sentencing policy is to be changed in the future, I am asking President Granger to pardon persons who are in prison right now for possession of petty quantities of marijuana. Pardon them now so they can get on with their lives. Mr. President, you have pardoned prisoners before for good reasons and you can do so again.
Doing so will help to ease the unnecessary burden on the overcrowded prisons, reduce the stress and costs involved in operating the prisons and allow these people to return to their families where they can continue to play a meaningful role in the upbringing of their sons and daughters.
God knows how their children, wives and other dependents are surviving; how they are being treated by classmates, friends, fellow church goers and workmates, as the case might be. So I am happy the President is taking the CARICOM report on decriminalising small quantities of marijuana seriously. Some of us have been calling for this for a long time.
Let us be cautious though. We have to make sure that decriminalising small quantities of marijuana does not encourage further lawlessness in our society. We cannot let some people think it is a ‘free for all’ and sit in bars or on street corners and smoke joints all day and night with their money and brains going up in smoke. President Granger’s position is great news. This move is long overdue, but we must proceed cautiously.
Roshan Khan Snr.