The Caribbean’s largest economy is taking major steps to regulate cannabis and create what could become one of the region’s most robust cannabis markets.
On Friday, Trinidad and Tobago Attorney General Faris Al Rawi pitched a shift in cannabis policy as part of the country’s most aggressive realignment in the area of criminal justice in decades, and he introduced two bills for debate in the House of Representatives: the Cannabis Control Bill and the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Bill. Although the details are vague, the package of legislation will regulate the consumption, production, and distribution of cannabis, while establishing the framework for an industry built around the plant.
Changes to Trinidad and Tobago’s cannabis policies have been years in the making. In 2013, Ivor Archie, the country’s Chief Justice, became one of the first major officeholders to lay out an argument for decriminalization. He stated that “marijuana consumption probably wreaks no more havoc than alcohol,” and highlighted the administrative and financial burden prohibition placed on judicial officials. Progress on the legislation was, however, stalled until 2014 when activists, NGOs, and other stakeholders across the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), a 15-member regional bloc, successfully lobbied heads of government to establish the CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana.
Since the Commission’s establishment, the region has seen a dramatic shift in policy. In 2015, Jamaica decriminalized the possession of up to 56.6 grams of cannabis, began to grant citizens the ability to cultivate five or fewer cannabis plants, and gave a legal exemption for members of the Rastafari faith, the region’s largest indigenous religion. Jamaica also became the first Caribbean country to establish a medical cannabis industry, and is gearing up for exports. Since the CARICOM Commission published its report titled “Waiting to Exhale — Safeguarding Our Future Through Responsible Socio-Legal Policy on Marijuana” in 2018, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Antigua and Barbuda have introduced and passed legislation to decriminalize cannabis and allow its use as medicine. And, the governments of Barbados, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Saint Lucia recently took similar steps by either drafting or introducing legislation to their parliaments for the establishment of medical cannabis programs.
The introduction of legislation in Trinidad and Tobago, home of CARICOM’s largest economy, will have a profound impact on existing and future cannabis legislation within the region, and will have ripple effects on the region’s tourism and agriculture industries.
Judicial reform and personal possession
Under the proposed Dangerous Drugs Bill, a person may possess up to 30 grams of cannabis or no more than five grams of cannabis resin without the need for a license and without facing a criminal penalty. However, a person found in possession of between 30 and 60 grams or no more than ten grams of cannabis resin will be found guilty of a summary offense and face a fixed penalty fine of USD $739. According to the explanatory text of the bill, once the fixed penalty is paid within the stipulated period, there will be no attempt of arrest, conviction, or imprisonment of persons found in violation. Failure to pay the fixed penalty, however, could result in a maximum fine of USD $7,390.84 or 30 hours of community service for a first-time offense.
People with previous cannabis convictions will have to apply through their legal representative to have the Commissioner of Police expunge the offense from their criminal record, and to apply for a pardon under Section 87 of Trinidad and Tobago’s Constitution.
The effects of granting personal possession could have a significant impact on the country’s criminal justice system. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 6.52% of Trinidad and Tobago’s population use cannabis regularly or occasionally. Between 2007 and 2018, Trinidad and Tobago’s courts heard 84,668 matters for possession of cannabis, an annual average of over 8,000 cases per year before 43 magistrates across 12 courts.
It would also have a significant impact on the country’s prisons, which between 2010 to 2018 held 3,429 individuals who were unable to access bail granted by the courts for cannabis-related offenses, at an average cost of between USD $2,217.25 to USD $2,956.34 per month per person.
Al Rawi, the attorney general, told members of the House of Representatives on Friday that Trinidad and Tobago could save upwards of USD $100 million by ending cannabis prohibition, due to the end of cannabis-related incarceration, judicial hours, and other state expenditures.
“The burden to the taxpayer of hundreds of millions of dollars expended in remand incarceration is as atrocious as the effect on the lives of the accused and their families. Convictions for possession of marijuana have derailed many lives as they stand as a bar to education, travel, and employment,” Al Rawi said to members, adding that the time has come to move past Trinidad and Tobago’s “colonial, archaic past to the future.”
Licensing, regulation, and mixed reactions
According to Clause 30 of the Cannabis Control Bill, which establishes the Trinidad and Tobago Cannabis Authority, there would be “several types of licences for medicinal, therapeutic or scientific purposes, such as Cultivator Licences, Laboratory Licences, Processor Licences, Retail Distributor Licences, Import Licences and Transport Licences. The Authority would also be empowered to issue Cultivator, Dispensary, Import, Export and Transport Licences for religious purposes.”
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The proposed reform has been met with mixed reactions from activists, legislators, and members of the business community. While the provisions also allow citizens to grow up to four cannabis plants at home, without a license, the current draft specifically allows only male plants to be grown. Some advocates say this is problematic as it is female plants that produce the desired flowers. And while some have praised the legislation as progress, others told Cannabis Wire that the proposal needs to be redrafted to include full adult use legalization of cannabis.
Al-Wari has said the governing People’s National Movement will use its majority to pass the bills in the House of Representatives. The country’s opposition party, formed by the United National Congress, however, on Friday called for the legislative package to go to a Joint Select Committee of Parliament because “it requires deeper thought” as to how it would be operationalized, parliament member Roodal Moonilal told Cannabis Wire.
While his party supports the decriminalization of cannabis, he says the current legislation needs to be clarified since the provisions require several institutional reforms.
“I don’t think there is any disagreement on the general policy,” Moonilal told Cannabis Wire. “It is really on getting the legislation right, because already you are hearing from persons in the law enforcement area about challenges in terms of weighing substances and in terms of on-the-road activities as it relates to this legislation.”
During a political rally earlier this month, Kamla PersadBissessar, the leader of the United National Congress and the country’s Opposition Leader, proposed a similar plan to introduce legislation to have cannabis decriminalized if her party won the country’s General Elections next year.
Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, Chair of the CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana, told Cannabis Wire she hoped the issue wouldn’t be used to score political points.
“I am pleased that good sense has prevailed and Trinidad and Tobago is now in line with the rest of CARICOM and the Report of the Regional Commission on Marijuana. The amount of cannabis allowed for personal use is higher than elsewhere in the region thus far,” Antoine said.
She also pointed out that Trinidad and Tobago’s attempt to go further than the medical cannabis proposals advanced in other Caribbean territories was a good step.
“The benefits of cannabis are now incontestable, and the deep wrongs that have been done to many, especially the marginalized and poor, because of the demonization of this plant, without scientific evidence, must cease. The Caribbean must now work together with like-minded states to modify the treaties that perpetuate this injustice,” she said.
Nazma Muller, one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most vocal cannabis activists, who spoke to Cannabis Wire earlier this month, said she was disappointed by the legislation. Muller is calling on other advocates and citizens to continue their activism until full legalization is achieved.
“What the Attorney General and government has done is shackle us. While saying, on the one hand, he is reducing the burden on the jails and the police, several of the clauses will wrap any future industry in red tape and restrain any attempts at homegrown production,” she said.
Muller continued, “As far behind as we are in research and development, will this legislation allow us to actually progress to where we should be? In terms of the licensing? How long is everything going to take? It took Jamaica four years to get to the point where it now has [a handful of] dispensaries.”