The government of Trinidad and Tobago brought two marijuana reform bills before Parliament on Friday—one to decriminalize low-level possession and another to legalize cannabis for medical and religious purposes.
During a speech before the House of Representatives, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi said the administration wants to reduce the prison population, curb costs associated with marijuana-related incarceration and free up law enforcement resources to pursue serious crimes.
Under the first proposal, possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis would be decriminalized. Possession of more than 30 grams and up to 60 grams would be punishable by a “fixed penalty notice” of about USD $7,400 that would not impact an individual’s criminal record if the fine is paid.
Additionally, the legislation laid before the Parliament would provide a pathway to get prior possession records cleared if individuals petition the court.
Al-Rawi said that “in addressing the reform of the criminal justice system, many have ignored the profound effect that decriminalization of certain offenses can have in the criminal justice system.”
However, there are some provisions that reform advocates oppose, including new penalties against possession and distribution of other substances such as LSD, MDMA and ketamine. And while the legislation allows individuals to grow up to four plants for personal use, it specifies that those plants must be male, which do not produce flower. It’s unclear if that policy was intentional or instead is an oversight based on government officials’ misunderstanding of cannabis.
The separate legalization bill would allow for the sale, use and distribution of cannabis for medical, research and religious purposes, though it does not provide for a recreational market.
A government regulatory agency would be responsible for issuing a variety of licenses, including those for cultivators, laboratories, processors, dispensaries, importers, exporters and transporters. Licenses would only be approved for companies with at least 30 percent local control in order to “avoid the abuses that occurred with multinational domination in other territories.”
“The Government after significant research, wide stakeholder consultation and careful legislative scrutiny is of the firm view that it is the correct time to amend the Dangerous Drugs Act and to cause the strict licensing and regulation of the research, cultivation, supply and commercialization of marijuana through the establishment of a Cannabis Control Authority,” Al-Rawi said.
There would be steep penalties for those who unlawfully engage with legal medical or religious marijuana programs. For example, a person who “uses medicinal cannabis without being authorized to use medicinal cannabis by a prescription or recommendation from a medical practitioner” is liable to a fine and ten years in jail.
There would also be restrictions on public consumption under the proposals. People working in certain safety sensitive industries such as airlines or bus companies would face additional restrictions on consumption.
Al-Rawi said that “these bills laid in the House of Representatives today represent the work of a progressive Government dedicated in the mission of getting it done!”
“The benefits to the people of Trinidad and Tobago are so obvious now that the work has been done and put into context. It is axiomatic that the Criminal Justice System should focus on serious crime and that all roadblocks to justice should be immediately removed so that Judicial and law enforcement time can concentrate where it matters most. It is equally axiomatic that Trinidad and Tobago should be anxiously conscious of the developments across the world which have recognized the economic potential of cannabis production unshackled from mid-19th century colonial values.”
“Whilst others have slumbered, we have toiled,” he said. “We shall get it done!”
Prime Minister Keith Rowley also said on Thursday that the “privileged elites have been smoking marijuana undisturbed for the longest while, any legalizing now is to free up poor people from unnecessary jail,” noting that Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) made a similar point during a Democratic presidential debate last week.
“Social justice, social sense, economic sense and the management of crime and fairness to all under the Constitution—that is what it is.”
In a separate speech at the People’s National Movement (PNM) election meeting, Al-Rawi joked that the country has “the best cocoa in the world and perhaps we could have the best marijuana in the world.”
The attorney general emphasized the impact of marijuana criminalization, noting that there are about 85,000 possession cases bottlenecking the courts and 500 people currently sitting in jail over such cases simply because they don’t have the resources to obtain bail.
“These include people who use cannabis for medical purposes, for epilepsy, people caught with it and the man next to you had it and you get taken down,” he said on Thursday, according to the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian.
Al-Rawi said the government is in a position to effectively regulate the cannabis market but acknowledged that there would be some pushback to the proposals. That said, the leader of the opposition party, Kamla Persad Bissessar, has also expressed support for cannabis decriminalization.
This latest development comes one year after the heads of 19 Caribbean nations announced they would be reviewing marijuana reform proposals with an eye toward ending prohibition. Since then, several countries such as St. Kitts have moved to change their country’s cannabis laws.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.