Drug Policy: Jamaica Decriminalises Cannabis, West Africa Joins the Debate

The global movement for drug policy reform continues to gather momentum in both West Africa and the Caribbean. On 2 June 2014, the Jamaican cabinet amended the Dangerous Drugs Act, making the possession of small quantities of ganja (cannabis) for personal use a ticketable infraction with only a financial penalty. Infractions will be dealt with outside the court system and will not result in a criminal record. The deep entrenchment of cannabis use in Jamaica’s national culture contributed to a long standing campaign to liberalise drug laws in the country.

In West Africa, public discussions about the status of drugs are very recent, a reflection of the growing realisation that drugs and drug use are an aspect of contemporary African life. The West African Commission on Drugs (WACD) recently released a report that called on governments and all other stakeholders to ‘develop, reform and/or harmonise drug laws on the basis of existing and emerging minimum standards and pursue decriminalization of drug use and low-level non-violent drug offences’.

In neither case do the proposals constitute an endorsement of drug consumption. To the contrary, the case for legislative change is put forward on the basis of:

  • a nuanced assessment of risk
  • the negative consequences of criminalising minor drug offences
  • the need for better allocation of resources in the criminal justice system

On this basis, it is understood that decriminalisation will be more effective in protecting public health, promoting good governance and keeping the public safe. Eliminating the prosecution of petty drug offences will limit blockages within the system and free up scarce resources. The Jamaican Minister of Justice announced that: ‘The current approach to the criminalisation of ganja places a significant burden on Jamaica’s overstretched criminal justice system and has contributed to the backlog in the Resident Magistrate Courts.  The treatment of minor drug offences as ticketable offences should ease the pressure on the court system’.

For the offender, becoming involved with the criminal justice system seriously hampers the opportunities for social inclusion, including finding employment. ‘The criminalisation of possession of a small quantity of ganja and of smoking ganja has caused significant hardships in Jamaica, particularly among young men.  A conviction for possession or use of ganja results in a criminal record, which often precludes the offender from engaging in certain employment, impacts his ability to get visas to travel overseas, and generally limits his life prospects. This is a serious human rights issue, supporting the cry for reform to our laws in this area’.

For the European Union’s role in promoting human rights, social justice and the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals this is a serious consideration. Applying legislation because of international treaties when it stigmatises and excluded large number of young people contradicts the intention of European development cooperation.

These concerns are echoed by the West African Commission on Drugs. The report claims that decriminalisation in West Africa would ‘remove a huge weight from an already overburdened criminal justice system and free up resources to more promising law enforcement alternatives’.

The Commission goes further to say that‘drug legislation should recognise the vulnerability of drug police to corruption’, where arrests are likely to me the ‘lowest-hanging fruit’ associated with minor offenses. Harsh penal regimes can also lead to the discriminatory application of the law to ‘crack down’ on a disfavoured groups.

Implications for the Cocaine Route Programme

The drug policy discussion has important implications for the cocaine route programme as well as for other EU projects in the field of drugs and crime control. It is a reminder that drug control is embedded in development cooperation and should contribute to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals and the promotion of European Union values.

Further, the activities funded under the CRP are designed to fight and deter organised crime. Cocaine trafficking is targeted so as to remove a profitable income source from organised crime groups not as an end in itself. It is far more effective if resources are concentrated on high level cases rather than the pursuit of petty offenders. This is a difficult lesson to learn where officers are under pressure to meet performance targets.

There are members in the law enforcement community who do not share this view. For some, it is believed legislative reform in Uruguay would have negative consequences for their anti trafficking efforts. This assessment is illustrative of a common misapprehension of the drugs/crime link. It is not the drugs that are the cause of crime and violence but the functions of the criminal markets.

In conclusion, the CRP should use the opportunity of legislative change in the regions where it works to focus resources on the fight against organised crime. It should educate stakeholders in causal mechanisms and the balance of harms.