No more jail time for small amounts of ganja

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Persons found with up to 30 grams of marijuana will no longer face jail time but will be required to undergo counselling or engage in community service as per the government’s Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Amendment) Bill that was passed in the National Assembly late Monday night.

The passage of this Bill paves the way for the removal of custodial sentences for the offence of possession of marijuana.

Instead of jail time, persons nabbed with one to 15 grams of marijuana will undergo mandatory counselling. Those nabbed with more than 15 grams of marijuana but no more than 30 grams of the drug will be required to provide community service.

It is important to note that these amendments do not decriminalise the possession of marijuana. Possession of this narcotic, even just one gram, remains a criminal offence.

Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs Anil Nandlall, SC, who piloted the Bill, explained that the government was forced to balance competing interests and rights when crafting the amendments to the existing narcotics law.

Attorney General Anil Nandlall, SC

While the Rastafarian community, for example, has been clamouring for the decriminalisation of marijuana, Nandlall explained that other groups prefer it remain a prohibited substance.

The challenge, he said, was crafting a Bill that reflected the religious freedom and protections guaranteed by the Constitution.

“A responsible government has to skillfully navigate these competing interests in an effort to find that delicate, acceptable equilibrium in order to satisfy, placate or pacify, while at the same time accommodating these viciously competing interests,” he said.

The removal of custodial sentences for the possession of marijuana and further, the decriminalisation of marijuana have long been contentious matters in Guyana and the Caribbean region.

This Bill was read for the first time in January 2021, nearly two years ago, before it was referred to a Special Select Committee for further consultation.

Deputy Speaker and leader of the Liberty and Justice Party Lenox Shuman, the only opposition lawmaker who participated in the debate on this Bill, opined that the government’s amendments “balances” societal needs.

Deputy Speaker and Opposition Parliamentarian Lenox Shuman (Photo: DPI/ February 4, 2022)

He, however, said, “It is my sincere hope that people who consume, who smoke, that they don’t look at this as the final step.”

While the Bill only removes custodial sentencing for the possession of small amounts of marijuana, Shuman alluded to further revisions, potentially decriminalising marijuana possession altogether, in the future.

Minister of Home Affairs Robeson Benn appeared to have a more rigid stance on marijuana possession, detailing numerous instances in which the farming of marijuana in Guyana impacted the lives of young people.

He also said that the increasing use of this drug among young people is proving harmful.

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