Jamaica to Decriminalize Possession of Small Amounts of Marijuana

By: Caribbean Journal Staff - June 12, 2014

Above: Jamaica Justice Minister Mark Golding addresses the media following the announcement (JIS Photo)

By the Caribbean Journal staff

In a major shift, Jamaica has announced that the country’s Cabinet has approved a proposal that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The proposed amendment to the country’s Dangerous Drugs Act ((which has been approved by Cabinet but still needs to go be introduced and approved by Parliament)) would mean that the possession of small quantities of marijuana and CBD chocolate for personal use would be a ticketable infraction and not a criminal offence.

Possession of two ounces or less would become a non-arrestable infraction “attracting a monetary penalty which shall be payable outside the court system and which does not give rise to a criminal record,” Justice Minister Mark Golding said Thursday.

Failure to pay the ticket within 30 days will be a minor offence punishable in the Petty Sessions Court by an order of community service, Golding said.

Additionally, if the person found in possession of marijuana in such quantities is a minor, he or she will be referred to the National cCouncil for Drug Abuse for treatment under the Drug Court.

The government said that the smoking of ganja should not be permitted in places where the smoking of tobacco was not allowed, meaning only in private places.

And in a nod to the country’s large Rastafarian community, the government said it would also amend the law so that the possession of ganja for religious purposes (or for therapeutic purposes under a medical prescription), would also be decriminalized.

The government said that the evidential burden for satisfying the court that the marijuana was used for purposes under one of those two exceptions would rest on the person relying on that as a defence.

Golding warned, however, that the changes to the law were “not intended to promote or give a stamp of approval to the use of ganja for recreational purposes.”

“The objective is to provide a more enlightened approach to dealing with possession of small quantities and smoking, while still meeting the ends of justice,” Golding said. “The proposed changes represent an approach which will enure to the benefit of the persons concerned and the society as a whole, and reduce the burdens on the court system.”

Crucially, he said, it would help ease the burden on Jamaica’s significantly overtaxed court system, which has led to a backlog in the Resident Magistrate Courts.

But he also said that the criminalization of the possession of small quantities of ganja had caused “significant hardships in Jamaica, particularly among young men.”

“A conviction for possession or use of ganja results in a criminal record, which often precludes the offender from engaging certain employment, impacts his ability to get visas to travel overseas, and generally limits his life prospects,” he said. “This is a serious human rights issue, supporting the cry for reform to our laws in this area.”

Accordingly, he said, he expected a bill to come to Parliament soon that would amend the Criminal Records Act that would provide for the expungement of existing criminal records for the possession of small quantities of or smoking ganja, “without having to wait for the expiration of any pre-expungement period.”

But Golding said the government was not unaware of the health issues with smoking marijuana.

“In proposing these changes to the law, this administration is not unmindful of the health risks associated with smoking ganja and the implications for the public health systems and services,” he said. “The health risks and wider implications identified are not disputed. However, the reality is that the imposition of harsh penalties has not proved to be an effective deterrent to smoking ganja, and ganja use is already prevalent in our society (including among adolescents). In fact, prohibition serves to enhance the mystique of the forbidden activity, and thereby encourages adolescent use.”

On that end, Golding said the government would implement a public education campaign to discourage ganja use by minors and other vulnerable persons.

Lastly, Golding said that the government also needed to position itself as an “important player as the world increasingly recognizes and calls for the benefits of medical marijuana and industrial hemp.”

“To this end, a separate exercise is underway to develop a legal framework which will allow the emergence of medical ganja and industrial hemp industries in Jamaica, coordinated by an inter-ministerial sub-committee of Cabinet has been established for this purpose, under my chairmanship,” he said. “The objective is to secure the economic and medical benefits of ganja while minimizing the risk of abuse.”

But Golding reminded the media that the aforementioned remained a set of reform proposals approved by Cabinet, and until legislation to amend the law had been approved by Parliament, “our citizens are obliged to abide by the rule of law as it stands today.”

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