By Kenichi Serino
In what the government has described as “a landmark” move, the National Assembly has voted to decriminalize the use of small amounts of cannabis for private and religious use in St. Kitts and Nevis, replacing some criminal penalties with fines and community service.
The new law passed by the National Assembly on July 31 changes the penalties for possession of up to 15g of cannabis, the use of cannabis in private residences and in houses of worship for the Rastafarian community. It also allows for persons to apply to the Drugs Council for permission to cultivate cannabis for these uses.
In an interview with The Observer, Byron said the bill was expected to be published in the Government Gazette by the end of this week, making the decriminalization of cannabis the law of the land. He emphasised that this was not the same as the legalisation of the use of cannabis.
“We still will not open up the market to an unregulated, unlicensed free-for-all. This bill will not legalise marijuana,” said Byron. “What we say we’ll do is that we won’t make it a criminal offense for small amounts.”
The new law comes just ahead of a deadline instituted by High Court Judge Eddy Ventose, who struck down portions of the Drugs Act in early May, declaring in a case brought by Ras Sankofa Maccabee that the blanket prohibition on cannabis was unconstitutional as it violated freedom of religion and conscience as well as the right to privacy.
Introducing the amendments to the bill, Prime Minister Dr Timothy Harris called the changes to the Federation’s drug laws “most impactful and far-reaching”. Harris suggested that the existing drug laws in St. Kitts and Nevis “reflected a victoria view regarding cannabis” and said that in moving toward decriminalization the Federation was participating in a regional trend that included Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda.
Speaking in the National Assembly, Byron called changes to the law a “paradigm shift”.
“Today we signal to the country that we will make the use of small amounts of marijuana, the possession of it, the smoking of it, you will not have a criminal record,” Byron said.
“Persons may apply for a license that will allow them to cultivate the plant in their private dwelling, use the plant in their private dwelling and approved place of purchase.”
“This bill and the ongoing work that is being done, this work is intended to uphold the rights of persons in St. Kitts and Nevis to have and use an alternative medicinal treatment option, in treatment of ailments, to uphold religious rights of persons and to drastically reduce the unregulated and illicit market for cannabis,” Byron said.
Penalties for small amounts of marijuana of less than 15 gram have been reduced. Instead of a criminal charge, a person will receive a ticket with a $50 fine. If the fine is not paid then community service will be required. If the community service is not done then a “small-term of imprisonment” will be made.
“We anticipate that this approach will satisfy our international obligations while allowing for regulated use that is consistent with our constitution,” said Byron.
Byron said that the use of cannabis would still be limited to private places and smoking of it prohibited in public places.”You’re not supposed to be smoking on Fort street,” he said.
An exemption has been made for public places for worship for practitioners of the Rastafarian faith.
The smoking of cannabis in public would be punishable with a thousand dollar fine, or in default of the payment up to 40 hours of community service or in default of that up to three days of imprisonment.
Doing “any task” under the influence of task under the use of cannabis that could constitute negligence or professional misconduct would be liable for a fine of $20,000, or in default of that 300 hours of community service or in default of that up to six months imprisonment.
“Some might say these are lenient penalties but the idea is that the attitudes in the country are changing and as we meet and discuss society will decide how far we go,” Byron said.
Byron added that the new law would not allow for any “commercial or financial” transactions for cannabis. He added that usage around children would be restricted but that it was in the interest of the state to protect “the very young”.
“The state has to protect the very young and you cannot say that I have my own right to privacy I can do whatever in front of children,” said Byron. “There must be a protection of the vulnerable amongst us.”
In an interview with The Observer, Byron said the usage around children was still a point of contention between the government and the Rastafarian community who will use cannabis for their religious ceremonies.
Byron told The Observer that the government had put off a broader Cannabis Bill that would have gone farther than this week’s reforms, including in creating a broader framework for cultivation and distribution including for medicinal cannabis. However, more work was needed on this, including ensuring that St. Kitts and Nevis would remain in line with its anti-crime obligations under international treaties.
Speaking in Parliament, Byron also acknowledged that more work in preparing the public for the relaxation of cannabis laws. In a poll conducted by the National Cannabis Commission, while most citizens of St. Kitts and Nevis supported medicinal marijuana, a majority did not necessarily support decriminalization for private or religious uses.
“We require further time to engage those in our country to invite to be part of this, to ensure that as we have this paradigm shift, as we adjust to changing mores and attitudes in our society that we get this thing right,” Byron said.
The bill also creates separate consequences for children found to be using cannabis and would require them to participate in a drug counselling programme approved by the government.