The great ganja debate
Whatever the outcome might be, Chief Justice Ivor Archie has set the stage for a national debate on decriminalising marijuana and, more generally, the issue of fighting drugs. The judiciary cannot set policy, which is why the Chief Justice identified this measure as one which the Executive could use to fight crime.
Predictably, the Chief Justice’s statement has triggered both howling outrage and loud support. The use of marijuana, particularly for medicinal and recreational purposes, has long been controversial. This is not surprising in a country where marijuana was once an accepted part of some communities before it was criminalised and declared a dangerous drug. Since then, we have witnessed the mushrooming of a more insidious and damaging trade in marijuana with associated linkages deep inside the criminal underworld.
Alongside this, however, has developed other schools of thought about the beneficial aspects of marijuana in the treatment of disease. Decades ago, long before the idea gained major international currency, Dr Michael Beaubrun championed its use in the treatment of glaucoma. More recently, its efficacy in treating other medical conditions has been documented. Last month, CNN’s medical correspondent, Dr Sanjay Gupta, famously presented a series to demonstrate why he, too, has changed his mind on the issue and now supports the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
While science is increasingly falling on the side of embracing the medicinal value of the plant, a more thorny public debate is developing around its decriminalising for recreational purposes. It will not be easy to dislodge the relationship of fear, stigma and anxiety that many law-abiding citizens have with the plant. Having accepted for so long that the law against marijuana is in the public interest, no one should expect them to change their minds overnight without a sound rationale for doing so.
For this reason, therefore, the Government should not make the mistake of under-estimating the importance of public information and education on all sides of this debate. Now that the Chief Justice has put the issue on the table, Government agencies should develop a fully-articulated strategy for engaging the public on the pros and cons of decriminalisation.
The debate over marijuana use offers the perfect opportunity for a national, apolitical debate on a matter of significant public interest. This is one case in which the Government’s role should be as a facilitator that is willing to be guided by informed public opinion. If the legislative arrangements are put in place, the decriminalising of marijuana could become a test case for a national referendum. If not, we should be able to trust it to a conscience vote in Parliament.
By putting the issue on the national agenda, the Chief Justice has protected the debate from becoming politicised and has opened the way for a genuinely national debate. We hope it stays this way and that the various political parties will resist the temptation to rush in and score cheap political points, thereby subverting the potential for fruitful national dialogue.