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How do we legalize weed in The Bahamas?

Bahamas National Commission on Marijuana Co-Chairpersons Quinn McCartney (left) and Bishop Simeon Hall (center) present their report on the issue of marijuana to Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis during a meeting at the Office of the Prime Minister yesterday. AHVIA J. CAMPBELL

The government appears to be on track to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational use in The Bahamas.

After years of stigmatization and criminalization, The Bahamas seems poised to join other countries and regulate what could potentially be a very lucrative industry.

This would be a major event if the Minnis administration does indeed move forward with this new policy. The issue deserves serious debate and study by seasoned professionals in the medical, business and law enforcement fields.

Bahamians should be the exclusive owners in this industry.

We are concerned that instead of moving forward with one of the most progressive changes in the modern Bahamas, the government is seeking to score favor with the public.

This administration is suffering from a midterm slump.

There is public outcry over the increase in value-added tax, the upcoming increase in electricity bills and the poor launch of the plastics ban this year.

Furthermore, many Bahamians on Abaco and Grand Bahama are most displeased with the pace of recovery on these islands in the wake of Hurricane Dorian.

With a new year will come new opportunities.

The marijuana issue is now being used as a means to deflect and recoup support and goodwill, we believe.

Yesterday, the Bahamas National Commission on Marijuana submitted its preliminary report to Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis.

The Nassau Guardian first reported in December 2019 that the preliminary report recommends the legalization of medicinal marijuana and the decriminalization of the possession of up to one ounce of the substance.

“Recreational marijuana should be permitted for adults over 21 years and medicinal marijuana should be permitted for adults over 18 years of age,” that report said.

In November 2019, Minnis publicly stated his support for expunging the criminal records of those convicted of possession of small amounts of marijuana. His comments came as he faced a vote of no confidence in the House of Assembly, which was easily defeated with the Free National Movement’s large majority in Parliament.

“Our laws regarding the possession of small amounts of marijuana have unfortunately led to the arrest, prosecution, conviction and punishment of many Bahamians,” the prime minister said in a statement at the time.

“Some of these people have been burdened with criminal records, making travel and finding work more difficult.

“Reforming our marijuana laws and changing how we treat people with small possession convictions is a matter of social justice.

“I support expunging the records of Bahamians convicted of possession of small amounts of marijuana. They deserve to move on with their lives free and clear of a criminal conviction.”

Yesterday, the prime minister went further and noted he supports the “release from prison of all those who are solely in prison for small marijuana possession”.

According to most recent police statistics, 917 people were arrested for possession of marijuana in 2019 compared to 835 in 2018. In 2017, 838 people were arrested for possession of marijuana.

These figures do not include those arrested for possession of marijuana with intent to supply.

But the government already has an organ to do this: the Advisory Committee on the Prerogative of Mercy, which “allows for the minister [of national security] to extend a level of compassion to certain persons convicted of criminal offenses, who have demonstrated the ability to reintegrate into society”.

Article 90 of the constitution provides for the governor general to “grant to any person convicted of any offense against the law of The Bahamas a pardon, either free or subjected to lawful conditions”.

Recreational usage

Legalizing marijuana for recreational use sounds good but what does it really mean for our country?

In Canada, the U.S. states where weed is legal and other countries, there are anecdotal stories of a healthy black market for weed.

Why does this exist if the drug is legal? Reportedly, this is due to a lack of licenses being distributed to locals and a lack of brick and mortar stores. Demand is so great that the local market can’t fill the void and hence some turn to illegal distributors.

This is an important lesson for The Bahamas.

How do we legalize the industry and prevent a black market?

A key benefit of legalization, some argue, is the elimination of the illegal marijuana drug industry. It would be naïve, though, to posit that legalization would result in no more illegal weed sales.

It will be interesting to see if the commission’s final report touches on this subject.

When he voiced his support for the legalization of medicinal marijuana, former Governor General Sir Arthur Foulkes warned that The Bahamas has to be careful when legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

“So, I feel nothing with eventually legalizing marijuana with the proper controls and education,” he said in 2018.

“But we have to be very careful. It might not be sensible to do that until the Americans liberalize it more – federally – because we will have a problem with that.”

In the U.S., recreational marijuana is legal in 11 states. Medical marijuana is legal in 33 U.S. states.

Moral questions

The Bahamas National Commission on Marijuana (BNCM) will now move towards conducting a poll to ascertain how Bahamians feel about the drug.

“So, we want to actually go there and have a scientific survey conducted,” BNCM Co-Chair Quinn McCartney said yesterday.

“We’ve gone door-to-door. We’ve spoken to people one-on-one. We’ve spoken to people at town hall meetings. But we actually want to get it scientific so when we quote statistics and say a certain representative of a portion of the population said a particular thing it will hopefully be reflective of the views of the majority of Bahamians.”

A survey conducted by the Bahamian market research and public opinion firm Public Domain, back in 2014, provided a snapshot of views as they existed at the time.

The survey found 40 percent of people agreed with the decriminalization of marijuana.

Speaking in 2018 about the 40 percent, Public Domain President M’wale Rahming told National Review, “It would have been significant because it was not a conversation that was had easily. We didn’t have a model to say, ‘Okay, if we did this, how would this work? Could this be done properly? Could this cause crime to explode?’

“Colorado, they have been so successful at this (and other states) that I think the story has now changed from ‘is this possible’ to ‘how do we go about doing it’.”

Colorado legalized the sale of recreational marijuana in 2014.

The 2014 survey showed that younger respondents agreed in larger numbers to decriminalization of marijuana.

More than 56 percent of those in the 18 to 35 age group agreed that marijuana should be decriminalized.

Roughly 32 percent of those in the 35 to 54 age group agreed, and 23.5 percent of those in the over 55 age group agreed.

While 30 percent of men strongly agreed, 47 percent of women strongly disagreed.

In a 2018 Public Domain survey, 71 percent of respondents said they believe marijuana should be legalized for medicinal purposes.

Many Bahamians are conservative.

Marijuana’s prevalence in this country is the fault of Bob Marley’s visit in 1979, many older Bahamians argue.

For decades, the dialogue about marijuana is that it is a gateway drug that destroys brain cells.

This argument will likely emerge if the government moves forward.

But this argument is flawed. Cigarettes, alcohol and prescription drugs are all legal, all addictive and are just as lethal as any banned controlled substance in the country.

We can also argue that the Bahamian diet is even worse. Peas and rice, macaroni, fried chicken, soda, Vita Malt also contribute to this country’s obesity, hypertension and diabetes rates.

The Bahamas’ shift into the marijuana industry should be pragmatic, well researched and financially rewarding for the least among us.

While this will not be some panacea for the many woes our country faces, it has the potential to reduce the court backlog, create a viable industry for young black men and cultivate a more progressive society.

The legalization of marijuana should not be used to prop up a failing government, but rather to move The Bahamas forward.

Travis Cartwright-Carroll

Assistant Editor at The Nassau Guardian
Travis Cartwright-Carroll is the assistant editor. He covers a wide range of national issues. He joined The Nassau Guardian in 2011 as a copy editor before shifting to reporting. He was promoted to assistant news editor in December 2018.
Education: College of The Bahamas, English

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