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Minister moves toward downgrading cannabis offences

Matthew Taylor, Royal Gazette - Bermuda, 18th April 2006

National Drug Control Minister Wayne Perinchief backs the downgrading of cannabis offences in a bid to stop criminalising “victims” of the drug pushers.

Mr. Perinchief has called for Bermuda to follow the UK where possession and dealing of marijuana – which has been downgraded to a class C drug – carries lower penalties than for Class A drugs like heroin and cocaine.

He is planning talks with the Attorney General on a policy shift and hopes to have the matter before Cabinet this year.

Bermuda generally lumps all illicit drugs together, said the Minister.

“We are moving now to dealing with drug use as a health issue rather than something criminal. If you are going to do that you need to keep people out of the criminal courts.

“First offenders with a small amount – possession for their own use – could be dealt with outside the criminal court. They could be referred straight to rehabilitation.”

The Minister said cannabis has been the drug of choice for decades and Bermuda has criminalised and even imprisoned youngsters caught with small amounts.

Convictions for possession barred people from travelling to study and work in the United States. “It’s a blight that will never go away,” Mr. Perinchief said. “The punitive effect of a marijuana conviction outweighs the crime.

“We are not saying the health issue is not still there. But we would like to deal with the treatment rather than the punishment to avoid criminalising such a large section of the population,” said Mr. Perinchief who added that black males are hit hard by the current law.

The idea of following the British standard of classification of drugs was discussed by the National Steering Committee for Drugs last week.

Mr. Perinchief, who chairs the committee, said it is important to be in line with international standards, particularly with those used in Britain and Caricom.

Even though research in the UK has shown marijuana could push those vulnerable to mental illness over the edge, the laws have remained liberal after evidence that marijuana use has fallen, he said.
“It would be a big step for us.”

The UK law still has provision for jailing people for up to two years for possession of cannabis and doling out an unlimited fine.

Asked if lowering cannabis penalties would lead to accusations that Government was going soft on drugs, Mr. Perinchief said: “We have to clearly identify the difference between the person who is a victim of drugs, they use drugs, and people who gain financially from the trading in drugs.

“To me that’s where the line of demarcation comes.

“There will be more investigation of people who deal in drugs. We are strengthening assets forfeiture regulations.”

Government will be asking for more accountability from financial institutions and lawyers on how they handle clients’ cash, Mr. Perinchief added.

Cash sales, traditionally a way that dealers launder their money, will come under the microscope.

With the new cruise ship season now underway Mr. Perinchief said he will also be pushing for 24-hour monitoring of gang planks to stop importation from passengers and crew members.

“I would say in the summer about 90 percent of the drugs are coming off those ships,” he said.

“There is a noticeable shift in drug use patterns when the ships stop running. Seizures at the Airport increase.”

He also raised fears about drugs coming in via break-bulk cargo containers which are split up away from the dock.

He said the new system, which came in last year, gave Customs officers less chance to look for illicit packages.

“When the container leaves the docks there’s a concern drugs can be taken off those containers,” he said.

“They go straight to a warehouse or if a private person is bringing in a container it will go straight to their backyard.”

He said he has some recommendations for change which will go to the National Steering Committee for Drugs but he declined to elaborate.

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