The criminalization of the possession of marijuana, including in small amounts, has had a ruinous effect on many Bahamians, including young people and especially individuals from grassroots and less economically privileged communities.
The examples are chillingly typical but no less deleterious to the lives and futures of many young people and their families.
On a Friday evening, a young man aged 19, who is caught possessing and/or smoking marijuana is arrested. Unable to afford and post bail, he remains locked up over the weekend, much of his future prospects potentially slipping away from him.
Arraigned after the courts re-open after the weekend, he is also unable to afford a lawyer and is at the discretion of a judge who may impose various penalties. Those unable to afford a lawyer may be at risk of harsher penalties, while those from more privileged backgrounds may be granted more consideration.
Penalties vary depending on the amount possessed, on whether it is a first offense and other circumstances. Word of his arrest reaches his employer, who decides to dismiss him.
Found guilty, a criminal record ensues and will now follow the individual for the remainder of his life. The consequences may include the inability to get a tourist or student visa from a variety of countries. The record may damage employment and other life prospects.
We have all made stupid mistakes or done things which we wish we could take back or amend. Many Bahamians and young people who have criminal records for the possession of small amounts of marijuana have the same yearning to rewind a part of their lives in order to make another choice or to redeem their past and a better future.
Life, quite often, does not allow us to rewrite parts of our past. Were it in our power to do so, we would eagerly rewrite the past and envision new chapters and futures. This is a part of our shared human condition and longings.
Mercifully, it is within our power as a people and a country to help scores of fellow citizens and young people to rewrite a part of their past and to subsequently write new chapters in their life story.
By decriminalizing the use of small amounts of marijuana and correspondingly expunging the records of those who were found guilty of possessing small amounts of marijuana, we have in our possession the power of restoring, renewing and healing many lives.
The committee looking into this matter will likely recommend to the government details as to the amount of possession that should be decriminalized. There should also be widespread public education on the new law as well as enhanced public health education programs on drugs, including alcohol and nicotine, especially in schools.
As Bahamians, as Christians, as people of faith and goodwill, we have the power and the moral responsibility to offer the precious gifts of hope and justice, and of forgiveness by ensuring that the state expunges the records for those in possession of a small amount of marijuana.
It is also in our power to ensure that many young people who may be found in possession of small amounts of marijuana in the future do not suffer as others have.
Many Bahamians know well the spirit of making a release of which Moses spoke in Deuteronomy 31:10 and the release of debts in Deuteronomy 15:1:
“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is the manner of remission: Every creditor shall cancel what he has loaned to his neighbor. He is not to collect anything from his neighbor or brother, because the LORD’s time of release has been proclaimed…”
While these passages have a broader historical and theological context, they suggest the spirit or removing undue burdens on others, especially the poor and less advantaged.
As Christians, we are especially called to help to liberate and set others free from certain crushing burdens. The decriminalization of the use of small amounts of marijuana and the expunging of certain records promises to be one of the more advanced public policy choices any government could offer scores of citizens.
Such a policy is ultimately about restoring and rescuing lives and granting the possibility of new life for many trapped by a mistake or poor choice that does not warrant the subsequent level of penalties, judicial and otherwise.
A humane global and international consensus continues to grow on the decriminalizing of various narcotics. One of the most advanced countries is Portugal, which decriminalized a variety of narcotics 18 years ago in 2001.
While these drugs remain illegal, the possession and use of small quantities of various drugs are treated as a public health issue and not as a criminal matter.
Many medical and mental health care professionals, as well as police officials have long viewed the use of narcotics as a health matter not a criminal matter for the state.
This week Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis lent his voice to the debate: “I am in favor of decriminalizing the possession of marijuana in small amounts and making it legal for medicinal purposes.
“Many Bahamians, including young men, have been convicted for possession of small amounts of marijuana. This results in criminal records and the loss of a job or inability to find employment.
“A good number have also been incarcerated for periods of time. Some cannot afford bail. I look forward to the upcoming report from the Bahamas National Commission on Marijuana to help fully chart the way forward.
“As prime minister it is my responsibility to have this matter properly examined.”
A 2015 Washington Post story read: “Whenever we debate similar measures in the U.S. — marijuana decriminalization, for instance — many drug-policy makers predict dire consequences. ‘If you make any attractive commodity available at lower cost, you will have more users,’ former Office of National Drug Control Policy deputy director Thomas McLellan once said of Portugal’s policies.
“Joseph Califano, founder of the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, once warned that decriminalization would ‘increase illegal drug availability and use among our children.’”
The Post story continues: “But in Portugal, the numbers paint a different story. The prevalence of past-year and past-month drug use among young adults has fallen since 2001, according to statistics compiled by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which advocates on behalf of ending the war on drugs. Overall adult use is down slightly too. And new HIV cases among drug users are way down.
“Now, numbers just released from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction paint an even more vivid picture of life under decriminalization: drug overdose deaths in Portugal are the second-lowest in the European Union.”
Like alcohol use and smoking cigarettes, marijuana use should not be a criminal matter that results in a criminal record. Indeed, use of the latter has nowhere near resulted in the level of public health crisis as the use of alcohol and cigarettes.
It is past time to re-educate ourselves and to revise unfair policies that have inflicted a heavy cost on too many of our fellow-citizens. This is a matter of basic fairness and justice.