Adults in the dual-island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis will be able to legally use marijuana in the privacy of their homes within the next three months under a recent court decision overturning some of the country’s anti-drug laws.
The ruling, which also makes it legal for adults in the Rastafari religion to use marijuana for religious purposes, gives government officials 90 days to “remedy [these] constitutional defects.”
Eddy Ventose, a High Court judge on the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, ruled that parts of the Drugs Act of 1986 regarding marijuana possession and cultivation infringed on citizens’ constitutional rights to freedom of religion and privacy. Under the nation’s laws, cannabis is an illegal Schedule II substance.
“The decision that the court makes today is not to be taken as undermining the State’s legitimate interest in the war on illegal and dangerous drugs,” Justice Ventose wrote in his May 3 judgment. “The constitutional issues in this case are narrow ones, and focus only on the use, possession and cultivation of cannabis by adults for use in the Rastafari religion and also the use, possession and cultivation of cannabis by adults in private for personal consumption. They do not touch or concern the issue of trafficking in cannabis, illegal drugs or other illegal activities.”
The change was spurred by a case involving Ras Sankofa Maccabbee, a Rastafarian who’d been practicing his religion for more than 23 years when he was arrested in 2012 on charges of possession of cannabis with intent to sell, as well as cultivation. He was sentenced to one month in prison and fined $5,000; however, he appealed his conviction and questioned the constitutionality of sections of the Drugs Act. Specifically, he argued that his right to “freedom of conscience, including freedom of thought and of religion” had been obstructed by the country’s anti-marijuana laws.
According to the court’s decision, “The Claimant states that he uses cannabis each day when he gives ‘praises’ to the ‘creator’ and that cannabis is a natural God given plant and is used to nourish the spiritual values of Rastafarians.” He also argued that “the use of cannabis is integral to his religious experience.”
In response, the defendants in the suit—the commissioner of police and the attorney general of St. Kitts and Nevis—asserted that marijuana use and cultivation should remain illegal in order to “safeguard the health and well-being of all citizens of Saint Christopher and Nevis, including Rastafarians.” In addition to citing a handful of studies to show how marijuana could potentially hurt certain groups of people, including adolescents and adults with pre-existing medical conditions, the defendants also contended that whatever medicinal benefits cannabis offers “do not remove the health hazards” associated with it.
Furthermore, they insisted the possession and cultivation portions of the Drugs Act did not target members of the Rastafarian community but were “designed to have general application in the pursuit of public health, public order and public safety, the objectives of which can best be achieved by the blanket prohibition on possession, cultivation and dealing in marijuana.”
Justice Ventose, however, disagreed on the grounds that the defense did not sufficiently argue their case. “Rather than find ways in which the religious may be accommodated, the Defendants maintained throughout their affidavit evidence, submissions and during oral arguments that a total prohibition is necessary in the interests of public health and public safety,” the court decision states. “That approach without adequate supporting evidence is impermissible and is constitutionally suspect.”
While the High Court agreed that the responsibility of implementing legislation regarding marijuana falls to the Parliament (also known as the National Assembly), the ruling also pointed out: “The fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizens of Saint Christopher [a formal name for St. Kitts] and Nevis are not and can never be subject to Parliamentary approval.”
As a result, the decision allows for Rastafarians and other adults to use, possess and cultivate cannabis in a private place. But, aware of new marijuana reform legislation moving though the National Assembly, Justice Ventose also suspended those declarations in order to give the Attorney General time “to cure the defects in the Drugs Act.”
Legislation known as the Cannabis Bill 2019 had its first reading last week. In addition to creating a framework to legalize marijuana use for medicinal purposes, the proposal would decriminalize possession up to 15 grams and the cultivation of less than five plants. It would also overturn convictions for those who have previously been punished for similar amounts.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.