Sunday, December 17, 2017

Grappling with the ganja issue

Express editorial logo349

Mark Fraser

 There are few topics on which there is a sharper divide between science and politics than the decriminalisation of marijuana. 

It is likely that the issue would never even have reached the Caricom (Caricom Community) agenda if the United States had not, over the past few years, been decriminalising the drug state by state. After all, marijuana cultivation has for decades been a far more pertinent issue for Caribbean countries than North American or European nations, but no regional leader has ever dared broach the subject.

Even now, the approach is tentative. Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, at the 25th intersessional Caricom meeting in St Vincent, said that while there had been agreement in principle, “I don’t think as a responsible politician I would want to commit without getting consent from the people of Trinidad and Tobago.”

In other words, she has to see how this proposal will play with voters. The same is true, no doubt, for all the other leaders in the region.

This is why talk of more research is itself political. The scientific consensus, after many studies done over many years, is that marijuana is not an especially dangerous narcotic, and certainly less so than legal drugs such as tobacco and alcohol. Smoking weed may be extremely harmful to a sub-set of users, but this is true of any brain-altering drug, including sleeping tablets and anti-depressants. 

The decision to decriminalise marijuana, for medical purposes or otherwise, would ideally be based on a cost-benefit analysis. Chief Justice Ivor Archie has already pointed to the consequences of the drug being illegal, such as young men being classified as criminals and courts being tied up with prosecuting this minor and often victimless offence. The status of marijuana as a banned substance also helps fuel violent crime and white-collar corruption as part of the illegal trade — consequences which would diminish or even vanish if production and distribution was controlled by the State and/or licensed companies.

Yet none of this is really relevant. The decision will ultimately rest on politics but, even here, the difficulty Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar faces will be finding out what voters actually think. Measured by sheer volume, it would appear that the majority of people oppose decriminalisation. Unscientific TV polls suggest a more even divide in public opinion, but even a proper survey would be difficult to administer, since those who favour decriminalisation might not want to say so to interviewers.

Given the controversial nature of this issue, the Government and Opposition could further the cause of political education in T&T by approaching the matter from a scientific, economic, and even historical perspective.