Court explains why teen ganja-user was jailed

Shawn Michael Phillips had appeared in court on ganja charges at least 13 times

Shawn Michael Phillips, 19, was sentenced earlier this month to 30 days imprisonment for consumption of ganja and possession of 0.944 gram of the illegal drug.

Chief Magistrate Margaret Ramsay-Hale handed down the sentence after Phillips had appeared in court for these charges at least 13 times. Most of those dates were for her “informal drug court” – designed to keep young ganja offenders out of prison and eligible to have no conviction recorded against them.

Phillips’ first appearance on these charges was on 8 June, when he pleaded guilty. “Are you prepared to forfeit your good character – your right to a visa – for a stick of weed?” the magistrate asked. She noted he was in breach of a probation order; he should have been on random testing for drug use, but did not make his last appointment.

“I forgot,” Phillips said.

The magistrate pointed out that persistent offenders are sent into custody. She remanded him in custody until 17 June, when he was released to reconnect with the Counselling Centre and continue to be subject to random testing.

He returned to court twice in July as his progress was monitored. Though less structured than the Drug Rehabilitation Court, the informal court has similar goals: the defendant should be working or pursuing an education, have stable housing, and produce at least two negative drug tests in a row.

On 19 August, Phillips was tested at court and the test was positive. The magistrate noted he had been late in attending counselling and was still unemployed. She ordered a one-week therapeutic remand.

On 30 September, Phillips tested positive again, but on 7 October the magistrate congratulated him for a clean test. “I’m going to stay with you until you are settled,” she told him, encouraging him in his search for employment.

Later in October, he did not attend court as required and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

In November he tested positive again. The magistrate noted he was not working and not trying to get work; she remanded him for seven days. On his release, he was referred to the Drug Rehab Court for assessment.

On 11 January the Drug Rehab Court order was revoked for noncompliance. Phillips was told to report for a social inquiry report and return to court on 3 February.

On that day, the magistrate directed the court marshal to administer the drug test to all of the young men she was monitoring. The marshal subsequently advised her that Phillips had told him, “Don’t test me. I’m positive.”

The magistrate wondered why Phillips was forfeiting his right to succeed. It bothered her that she cared more about his good character than he did.

Phillips still was not working, she noted. Reading from the report, she said he did not live at home; his mother wanted him to, but she would not tolerate any drug use. The report also referred to a medical condition; Phillips’ doctor had told him smoking was detrimental to his health.

‘You will not purchase the right to smoke’

He had all of these reasons to stop using ganja but had not stopped.

The magistrate refused to fine him. “You will not purchase the right to smoke. You cannot pay a fine and go out and smoke again,” she said. She hoped the 30 days would give Phillips time to think.

By coincidence, another ganja user, also 19, was dealt with the same day.

He too had been referred to the Drug Rehab Court, but it was determined that he did not need that intense level of intervention

. He had produced four negative drug tests in a row. He had completed studies for an associate degree and told the court he wanted to own his own business.

“Get your full degree,” the magistrate urged him. “Get your business licence. Don’t come back here.”

The magistrate said she did not think the public interest was in any way affected by this young man being placed on probation.

“The public interest is best served by restoring young men like him to themselves and their families.”

After one year of probation is successfully completed, there will be no conviction recorded.

If the offender were simply fined and disposed of, the conviction would stay on his record for five years.

It would have to be declared on any job questionnaire or visa application.

Participants in the Drug Rehab Court do not have convictions recorded if they complete the programme.

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