Police chief recommends softer approach, but not decriminalization
Jamaica’s decision to decriminalize cannabis could have negative consequences for Cayman and other Caribbean islands where the drug is still illegal, Police Commissioner David Baines has warned.
Mr. Baines believes the Cayman Islands should consider treating low-level cannabis possession offences with a police caution rather than a criminal charge.
But he said he did not support full decriminalization and warned that Jamaica’s decision would have a knock-on effect throughout the Caribbean.
The Jamaican Cabinet, in January, approved a bill that would legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and set a legal framework for the cultivation, sale, and distribution of the drug for medical and therapeutic purposes.
Mr. Baines fears that could mean a relaxation of enforcement on Jamaica’s borders when it comes to the import and export of the drug.
“Jamaica is awash with ganja,” he said. “They are the biggest exporter, so guess what? They have decriminalized it.
“What is that going to mean in terms of border security issues? Does it mean they are going to cut down on border security, so it is our problem?”
He said there was a clear risk that responsibility for enforcement would be transferred to places like Cayman and the rest of the Caribbean, where possessing, consuming and selling marijuana remains illegal.
Citing similar issues in the U.S. where states bordering Washington and Colorado are facing issues with cannabis bought legally in those states coming across the border, he said Cayman Islands law enforcement officials would need to keep an eye on what was happening in Jamaica.
He said he did not support Cayman following the example set by Jamaica, though he did suggest that small possession offenses could, in some circumstances, be treated with a caution.
“I think there is an issue at first offense that junior individuals with low levels of simple possession they get a warning or caution so they are not criminalized. Once they have had three chances, that should be it, gone, but there is no need to criminalize them at that early stage ….
“I have not asked for nor suggested that drug possession be decriminalized. I have said that officers should have other options to use their discretion, rather than just progressing for prosecution.
“This would include the ability to formally caution or warn an offender for simple possession, therefore negating the need for the individual to have a criminal record, let alone clog up the court and prison system.”
Such a move would require amendments to the Criminal Code to allow officers a formal process to seize and dispose of the drug without bringing criminal charges.
Michael Myles, the government’s at-risk youth officer, agreed it was important to keep young people out of the criminal justice system if possible. “However, we must be cautioned that many of our young people are becoming addicted to the drug,” he said.
Mr. Myles believes widespread use of cannabis among Cayman’s youth is a symptom of a wider problem.
“The use of ganja is not the problem I am concerned most about. Ganja is normally used to mask the root cause of many issues our youngsters are faced with. For example, there are many children struggling with mental health issues, abuse and neglect, lack of parenting, and poverty.
“Many of our children are using ganja as an escape to mask these issues. If we don’t address these issues, simply decriminalizing ganja will not have an impact. It will contribute to a larger social issue.”
Commissioner Baines said results from countries like Portugal, which has begun treating drug use as a health issue rather than a law enforcement issue, were mixed.
He added, “My wish would be that law enforcement outcomes should include caution and warnings and softer options than merely criminal conviction and affecting young people’s futures for a judgement call that is questionable.
“From U.S. presidents down to our current generation of young people, ganja is as available as alcohol and cigarettes, perhaps we should treat it in a similar way to those two unhealthy yet tolerated and legal vices.”
Premier Alden McLaughlin did not respond to requests for comment on the issue.