Most people who use marijuana in Guyana consume by smoking the herb. It is not only members of the Rastafarian community who engage in the practice, which is sacred to them, but people of every class, religion, ethnicity and gender.
However, it is mostly the common man who faces prosecution for marijuana possession. Like 25-year-old father of eight Derrick Persaud, of Mabaruma, who was remanded last week for having 2.6 ounces of marijuana. Or 18-year-old Jad Atkinson, a teacher of Aishalton Village, South Rupununi, who was arrested in April and remanded for the possession of 1.7 ounces. Or 23-year-old Tiffany Sultan, of Charlestown, who was sentenced to two years and eleven months in March for possession of 3.7 ounces. The three examples are of all very young people but older individuals also do not escape the law. Linden Gordon, a 57-year-old farmer was remanded after he was allegedly found with 3.2 ounces of marijuana in April.
There are countless stories about people who are on remand or serving sentences because of marijuana possession. But their imprisonment is not against the law of the land. According to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances and (Control) Act, cannabis is illegal. Sections 4 and 5 of the law outline the penalties for possession and trafficking of cannabis.
For possession, the Act says that the penalty on summary conviction is a fine of not less than thirty thousand, together with imprisonment of not less than three years nor more than five years; or on conviction on indictment, a fine of not less than thirty thousand or three times the market value of the narcotic, whichever is greater, together with imprisonment of not less than five years nor more than ten years.
The Act stipulates that possession of more than 15 grammes or just over half an ounce would be considered possession for trafficking, for which the penalty is on summary conviction, a fine of not less than thirty thousand dollars or three times the market value of the narcotic, whichever is greater, together with imprisonment for not less than three years nor more than five years; or on conviction on indictment, to a fine of not less than seventy-five thousand dollars or three times the market value of the narcotic, whichever is the greater, together with imprisonment for life. (Anyone can read or download the entire Act at the Government Information Agency website.)
But are these laws harsher than they should be? Is it still necessary that we continue to convict a large number of people every year for even possessing small amounts of marijuana?
In recent times, there has been talk about the legalisation of marijuana in Guyana. I was curious about people’s thoughts on the issue. Most of the younger people I canvassed thought that marijuana should be legalised. It was reiterated that criminalising the possession of marijuana disregards cultural practices and medicinal use, while unjustly creating criminal records, especially in cases of persons held with small amounts.
Most of the more senior folks, meanwhile, were against legalisation as they hold that laws are there to guide our society and when people break the law they should face the consequences. The suspected negative effects associated with the use of marijuana, such as mental illness and lung disease, also concerned this group. However, it should be noted that there was also a view that if cannabis is not legalised then it cannot be scientifically studied.
A lawyer thought that marijuana in small amounts should be legalised but trafficking should remain illegal. The need for legalisation to go hand in hand with drug rehabilitation was also highlighted and reference was made to Portugal, which decriminalised the use of all drugs in 2001. People are not prosecuted for small amounts for personal use and there is focus on rehabilitation.
I also sought the Rastafarian view, which, as expected, is that marijuana should be legalised following the example of Jamaica. “Herb is the healing of the nation,” I was told.
Cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy and pain relief are just a few health conditions that marijuana use is said to help. I also know people who are recreational users for meditation and artistic inspiration and who are healthy and stable members of our society.
However, there is also the other side of the argument, which identifies problems that marijuana use may cause. In the book, “African Holistic Health,” Dr. Llaila O. Afrika says, “Smoked marijuana is a depressant which depresses bodily functions and nerve activity.” He also talks about marijuana lessening heart action, thinking, muscle contraction, breathing and gland secretion and that it increases the aging process.
However, he also did write that the mineral content of the plant is good for lung disease.
I believe that fears of addiction is what fuels the negative perception many people have when it comes to marijuana. It is assumed that excessive smoking of marijuana may have contributed to the conditions for some members of our society who are suffering from mental illness.
Being addicted to anything, whether it be marijuana, drugs like cocaine, or even prescription drugs, demonstrates that the product is in control of the mind and even the behaviour. There are consequences when we overindulge in anything–even some of what is good for us. But considering that smoking the herb is what many believe is dangerous, what about using it in other forms? In places where marijuana has been legalised, people are using cannabis oil and making edibles. These options may be safer than smoking it.
There is also opportunity for employment. Though we are aware that there are many people involved in trafficking marijuana and enjoying the benefits, are they paying any taxes? How could they when the business is illegal, according to the law. There is an opportunity for employment and financial growth if people are able to legally engage in providing marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes. Some may argue that it will encourage more marijuana use but sometimes when things become more accessible, there is less demand. And those who are determined to use marijuana will do so whether it is legal or not. In the case of Portugal, they saw a decrease in the number of hard drug use since the decriminalisation.
When we look at issues in our society, like violent crimes and accidents, often it is overindulgence in alcohol and not marijuana that is the contributing factor. The question has been asked many times: How is alcohol legal and marijuana isn’t? There is a plethora of proof that when abused, alcohol can cause devastating consequences to health and judgment, yet people have free will to indulge in it as much as they please.
Clearly, whether it is alcohol, marijuana or even food, some people will become addicts and others will not. Whether some people are more prone to addiction because of their biology or whether they are seeking to escape from their reality, it is about the power of self. How strong is the individual to make responsible choices; do we let the substance take control of us or do we take control of how we utilise it?
I do think that legalisation of marijuana in Guyana should be considered. Research is being done every day and more benefits of medicinal marijuana are being revealed. People in Guyana who wish to explore these alternatives should not be in fear of going to jail for its possession, especially when it is for personal use. And when we consider that our prisons are overcrowded and many of those behind bars are there for marijuana possession, it is time we rethink the laws.