By Lara Pickford-Gordon
Medical marijuana has been used like a “Trojan Horse” in the campaign overseas and in the Caribbean to get marijuana legalised for recreational use. But they are separate issues.
Archbishop Jason Gordon made this point while addressing The Catholic Commission for Social Justice’s symposium ‘Marijuana and cannabinoids: Health, research and regulatory considerations’ on Zoom Friday June 5. “Let’s harvest medical marijuana for the use people are believing it can work for; let’s do the research and let’s be evidence-based on that. Recreational marijuana I am proposing [is] very, very different” he said. The forum shared a range of perspectives legal, medical, psychosocial and also had personal testimonies of recovering addicts.
Archbishop Gordon mentioned there had been confusion in the minds of people between ‘legalising’ and ‘decriminalising’; these were used interchangeably. He stated, “Decriminalising refers to taking away the criminal penalty if a person is held with small amounts of marijuana. Possession of large amounts is deemed to be for trafficking purposes and it remains a criminal offence”. US States of Colorado, Washington, California have legalised thereby making marijuana easily available in shops as cigarettes or “marijuana-infused foods” without penalties.
In several countries drug courts were established so persons can be mandated to go into treatment; they are not stigmatised from going through the criminal justice system. The courts collaborate with the legal and social system including treatment communities. Archbishop Gordon said T&T’s drug courts, “can mandate community service, psychotherapy to deal with the unresolved issues of the person”. He said drug use is a “health challenge” until addiction and the user engages in criminal activity to support their habit.
The amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act (2019) Archbishop Gordon said, “was partial legalisation”. He went on, “Very simply if it is legal for an adult to have four marijuana plants then having marijuana is legal…now four adult marijuana plants can produce enough marijuana to supply quite a few people smoking a fair amount of marijuana on a regular basis.”
The law makes it legal for persons to have no more than 30g of cannabis or 5g of cannabis resin, and to cultivate or have in their possession ‘not more than four growing plants of the genus cannabis’. Archbishop Gordon said all adults need to do is ensure they do not have in their possession or harvest more than 30g at a time, “then it is legal”.
He said US data measuring the impact of legalising marijuana was insufficient but early indicators suggest “social challenges” increased. From his pastoral work, he has seen teens starting to smoke display a visible change in personality, school performance and motivation to excel “decreases dramatically”. Marijuana use becomes an obsession and erodes the young person’s identity. “They are willing to take big risks to continue with the frequent use and that is where they start slipping into criminal activity because to support the habit, they need to have the money to do so,” he said.
Archbishop Gordon disclosed taking several young persons to institutions for marijuana psychosis treatment. “It’s not a pretty sight,” he said. One young man took three months for his brain to recover and return to some normalcy. Archbishop Gordons said, “the second time you have a psychosis, the effects are disastrous and by the third time, people will know something is wrong with you and you can’t hold a job or the job you would have been able to hold before”.
He cited a study by New Life Ministries which found in 51 per cent of its over 500 cases (2012–2019) the first use of cannabis and cocaine was in the 11-15 age group; 94 per cent started under 21 years. “There is enough evidence to see a movement between marijuana and cocaine”. The study looked at nicotine, alcohol, cannabis and cocaine use.
The Archbishop understood there were legitimate ways marijuana can be used as medication but added “that does not lead us to legalising marijuana”. While many opioids are used for medication such as for cancer treatment, these are harvested by licenced farmers. “It never goes to market to be used casually. We have the framework for harvesting opioids and bringing them and moving them to medication so they can be used for medical treatment under licence.”
The challenge with the former law was criminalising persons for marijuana possession. This can be more harmful. Archbishop said, “the poor black male is most vulnerable and without an adequate support system he is likely to enter prison, enter as a substance abuser, is at risk of graduating as a master criminal and how does that benefit anyone?” He called for marijuana to be decriminalised, drug courts expanded, and rehabilitation centres supported. Marijuana is addictive and has many social consequences for users, abusers and society, “people caught with marijuana should receive help” the Archbishop said.
Know the law
Persons who decide to have marijuana in their possession for personal use should educate themselves about the amendments to the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act 2019. Ignorance is no excuse.
“You do not want to find out what 30g looks like when the police weighs on a scale at a police station and you find out you have more,” said Attorney John Heath. This can be the difference between not committing a criminal offence and “possibly committing an offence for which there can be criminal liability”. His topic was ‘The Road to Decriminalisation of the Dangerous Drug Marijuana in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago’.
If found with more than 30g and less than 60 g persons who contest the charge can be liable on summary conviction to a fine of $50,000 or receive community service of up to 30 hours. The latter sentence, means no conviction is recorded once the entire period is served in accordance with the Community Service Act. Heath said, “This is where it is tricky because if you contest it you risk the possibility of being found guilty and you risk the possibility of a fine of up to $50,000”. The magistrate has the discretion to impose community service if the fine cannot be paid.
The legislation is “silent” on if community service is given and it is not served whether in default, the fine took effect and persons find themselves with a conviction by default. Persons with more than 60 g and less than 100g who contest it may be liable upon summary conviction of a fine of $75,000. The magistrate may impose community service. Heath said it is important for persons to understand the quantities of possession because the consequences are significantly different.
For persons already charged for less than 100g, the Act provides for a process to apply to the Commissioner of Police to have the record expunged. After doing this, the person applies under Sec 87 of Constitution for a Presidential pardon. Heath said it is important to understand the circumstances of 30g or possessing four plants. There was “incongruity” whether it was four plants per household or per person.
He gave the example of two adults in a household with eight plants. They can say four plants belong to A and four belongs to B and not be in breach of any provisions of the Act. He commented, “You better be prepared that those persons are willing to say four plants is their own or it is clearly defined and marked”. If the other person denies owning four of the plants they can still be charged. “Possession is based on knowledge because if you know the eight plants are there and you did not have anything to do with it you would simply expose yourself”.
He warned that persons living close to schools should consider if they want to face the likely consequences of having marijuana in their possession. “You certainly don’t want to be a test case for whether or not you are in breach of the principal (Dangerous Drug) Act, which says if you are found within 500m… of a school you are deemed to be trafficking”.
Public smoking can incur a fixed penalty ticket which can be paid and no offence recorded. It can be paid and also contested but Heath said “you really need to hope you are able to successfully contest; once you are not successful the exposure is greater”.
The amendments to the Act do not include a retroactive clause for persons already convicted and sentenced. Heath said, “Unfortunately, as exists in our jurisdiction once you have the stain of a conviction the only way to get it off is by getting a presidential pardon. If you have a conviction there are certain prejudices you will face in society”.
He referred to persons with convictions from years ago for simple possession who paid their fines but are unable to get Certificates of Good Character from the TT Police Service. The Certificate is an official document that states whether or not a person has a record of previous convictions in Trinidad or Tobago.