Nazma Muller, one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most vocal cannabis activists, heads to Port-of-Spain Magistrates’ Court on November 13, charged with the use of obscene language under Section 49 of the country’s Summary Offences Act, a controversial holdover from the Colonial Era. Muller’s alleged offense took place during a protest on October 18 over the government’s delay in advancing legislation to regulate the use of cannabis in the twin-island nation, the home of the Caribbean’s largest economy.
Muller has advocated changes to the country’s cannabis policy for years, with the movement gaining its first major win last year when she successfully launched and delivered a petition that had garnered more than 10,000 signatures to the country’s Prime Minister, Keith Rowley. That was followed by a pledge by the Prime Minister to shift government policy and establish a framework for the decriminalization of the substance by June 2019, in line with the recommendations of Caribbean Community’s Regional Commission on Marijuana (CARICOM) published in 2018.
However, months after the proposed June deadline, which has been missed, an analysis by Cannabis Wire of incident reports in October, published by the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service, paint a vastly different picture. That month, according to the official data, scores of people were arrested for simple possession of cannabis. In fact, the majority of the country’s inmates were arrested for possession, not trafficking.
According to activists, law enforcement officials have a vested interest in delaying changes to the country’s Dangerous Drugs Act, which currently classes cannabis as a narcotic drug and psychotropic substance, simple possession of which could lead to a fine of up to USD $3,692 and a five-year prison term, punishments that can be doubled depending on the quantity of cannabis found and on prior convictions.
Despite widespread public support for changes to the Act—including public polling and consultations by the Ministry of Attorney General in early 2019—the legislative delay has positioned Trinidad and Tobago as a major cannabis holdout in a region that has seen a dramatic shift in policy since 2015, when Jamaica decriminalized the possession of up to 56.6 grams of cannabis and began to grant residents licenses to cultivate five or fewer cannabis plants , and granted a legal exemption for members of the Rastafari faith, the region’s largest and most well-known indigenous religion.
More recently, the government of Barbados published and debated its draft Medical Cannabis Bill amid mixed reaction, as reported by Cannabis Wire in August. Meanwhile Saint Kitts and Nevis has also taken legislative steps in its Parliament and St. Vincent and the Grenadines started issuing licenses to local and international businesses for the commercial cultivation of cannabis in July. In September, St. Lucia’s Cannabis Commission, reconstituted in July 2019, held its first round of public meetings to inform the drafting of legislation, with a pledge to have the matter settled in early 2020. All of this threatens to put any potential cannabis industry in Trinidad and Tobago at a disadvantage.
Cannabis Wire’s Clydeen McDonald spoke to Nazma Muller on November 9, following her fourth week of protest outside Trinidad and Tobago’s Parliament, and ahead of her court hearing. (This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.)
Clydeen McDonald, Cannabis Wire: When I reviewed data from the Office of the Attorney General, the Judiciary, and the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service, I found that about 3,439 inmates in the country’s prisons were awaiting trial for cannabis-related offenses from between 2013 and 2018. Of that number, 2,417 persons had been charged with possession, while others had been charged with trafficking or cultivation. Within that context, and more recent events, can you help our readers to understand prohibition and enforcement in Trinidad and Tobago?
Nazma Muller: Trinidad and Tobago is a different proposition than the other islands in the region in terms of the level of state resources dedicated to criminalizing the use of marijuana. What we have seen over the last couple of months is that the police have ramped up arrests relating to cannabis. We are hoping that increased public pressure will force the government to bring the bill to Parliament before the end of the year.
When you have people being arrested—even a national scholarship recipient and grandson of a government minister—for under a gram of cannabis, it paints a picture for you of the harshness of prohibition in Trinidad and Tobago. I don’t necessarily prescribe to the economic argument as much as others; it has become a matter of human rights, and a complete waste of resources.
Cannabis Wire: Within the context of your protest, can you explain what stage the proposed bill is at, and how would these protests push the issue forward, if at all?
Muller: Basically, I believe we are at the gate, and the protest is happening to call attention to the issue and move it forward. It is my understanding that the draft legislation is ready, or close. And what is left, is for the government to introduce the bill into the Parliament and for us, the public, to be able to see what path we are taking. That’s why I am outside Parliament and will be every Friday until it is introduced.
Cannabis Wire: We have seen Faris Al-Rawi, Trinidad and Tobago’s Attorney General, make several statements relating to the bill, and even suggested the idea of having the criminal records of persons arrested in the past expunged. So what has caused the delay in your opinion?
Muller: Honestly, it is clear at this point that the delay is intentional. This has a lot to do with economics, because a large part of the economy is underground, and cannabis—legal or illegal—is a million-dollar industry in Trinidad and Tobago and that’s why you have seen this delay. For many, cannabis is seen as the currency of crime, and the state is playing with the lives of citizens. The continuation of prohibition continues to set up a dangerous balance between persons seeking legitimate use of cannabis as a form of treatment, enforcement officials, and the criminal element.
Cannabis Wire: Outside of the state, we have seen some smaller political parties and other activists coming out in support of cannabis reform and your protest in particular. The state has said that the complete suite of legislation that needs to be amended could require a special majority, either two-thirds or four-fifths, in Parliament. Do you believe that the votes required would be available when the bill does come forward?
Muller: We are lobbying everyone on this issue. I have said it before, I think all political parties should come together on this issue, because it is a national issue, beyond politics. I And we believe that the public support and political support are there.
Cannabis Wire: Based on your knowledge and conversations, in what direction will the government take the legislation and the industry, once the bill is made public?
Muller: We believe they will create a similar arrangement to other islands. Caribbean-wide, as well as in Trinidad and Tobago, there is a feeling that governments have promoted industry interests ahead of domestic ones, and made it extremely difficult for the average person to get involved in the cannabis industry, and for local farmers to meet the criteria. That creates a bottleneck in any industry planned at a local level, even in Jamaica. It has taken three years for licenses to be granted there, and that is largely because the regulations are prohibitive for many.
Cannabis Wire: You spoke about Jamaica and the other islands. Do you believe that regional governments have been too welcoming of the idea of foreign interest in the industry? If yes, has that hampered indigenous or traditional producers of cannabis in the region?
Muller: This is why the fight in Trinidad and Tobago is so important, and why we are working to have representation for traditional farmers in whatever is proposed. Legislation across the region has been strict, to the point of excluding local farmers. We have people who have gone to jail for cultivating marijuana, and they ought to be given licenses. It is unfair for a venture capitalist or some big corporation to come in and set up after people have suffered and done time and served multiple years in prison. And locals are forced to purchase products from you. a This is what we fear—that when governments decriminalize they have an interest in making it harder for indigenous farmers to participate.