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Little hope for decriminalisation of ganja

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PARLIAMENTARIANS supporting the decriminalisation of ganja earned little
consolation from Solicitor General Michael Hylton's return Wednesday to
respond to specific questions triggered by his warning in December against
breaching international conventions.

The solicitor general said that despite the fact that both ganja and wine
could be regarded as religious sacraments, they were not treated equally
under the law and, therefore, could not be equated in terms of the argument
for decriminalisation.

"Even assuming that ganja plants could be described as growing wild, and
that Rastafarianism could be classified as a small, clearly determined
group, Jamaica could possibly have opted to make a reservation concerning
the use of ganja for religious purposes when the country became a party to
the Convention on Psychotropic Drugs. Jamaica did not do so and, as a
result, cannot now convincingly argue that the use of ganja by Rastafarians
for religious purposes is permitted under that treaty," Hylton told a
parliamentary committee.

Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) MP Mike Henry (Central Clarendon), who has been
advocating decriminalisation on religious grounds, suggested that the
committee urge the government to put the case to the international

The committee agreed, but Hylton told the Observer after the meeting that it
was very unlikely that such an argument would win support in the
international arena, as a number of other countries faced a similar dilemma.

Hylton said that Jamaica's room to manoeuvre would be restricted by the
terms of three conventions - the Single Narcotics Convention, the Convention
on Psychotropic Substances and the Convention against Illicit Traffic in
Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances - concerning activities closely
related to the personal use of ganja.

"Jamaica would be in breach of its treaty obligations if Parliament were to
remove criminal sanctions with respect to these activities," Hylton

But he said that none of the conventions actually indicated the level of
punishment associated with the offences. Given that the conventions provide
only limited guidance as to sentencing for ganja-related offences (such as
possession and cultivation) Jamaica could reduce the level of sentence for
such offences. However, he said that Jamaica would need to ensure that a
reasonable degree of proportionality is retained between the particular
offence and the punishment to be applied.

On the question of whether possession and cultivation of ganja for personal
use could be made punishable only by a fine, without creation of a permanent
criminal record, Hylton said that it was arguable that, with respect to
small quantities of ganja, the imposition of a fine could be an appropriate
penalty, consistent with the relevant treaty obligations.

It was fair to say that a permanent criminal record was a disproportionate
response to the simple possession or cultivation of small quantities of
ganja, but it would be unrealistic to abandon entirely the retention of
records, if Jamaica wishes to comply with international obligations.

On the issue of the commercial production of cannabis-related goods (without
resin), he said it would need to be regulated by the State, pursuant to a
special licensing system.

Hylton said, too, that the general approach of the Singles Narcotics
Convention is against commercial use, regarding the extraction of fatty
acids. But there was an exception in terms of drugs commonly used in
industry "for other than medical or scientific purposes". However, the
solicitor general advised that if this exception is to be relied upon for
commercial production, the State must provide statistical information to the
International Narcotics Control Board.

"Bearing in mind that ganja is not now commonly used in industry in Jamaica,
it would be difficult for the country to rely on this exception in order to
justify the commercial extraction of fatty acids at this time," Hylton

The solicitor general also objected to the National Ganja Commission's
proposal that decriminalisation should exclude smoking by juveniles. He said
that this recommendation would discriminate against children. Later on,
however, he agreed with a proposal from the JLP's Mike Henry that juveniles
should be also exempted, but that parents be held accountable.

Henry, in the meantime, urged the committee to move quickly to a conscience
vote in the House of Representatives, as he as he felt that the solicitor
general's responses offered little hope for the members of the committee who
supported decriminalisation.

Committee chairman, Dr Morais Guy (Central St Mary) said that there would be
another meeting on February 11, at which he would seek consensus on a draft
report to be sent to Parliament.

Pubdate: Friday January 23, 2004
Source: Jamaica Observer (Jamaica)
Author: Balford Henry