Trinidad and Tobago: The Good, the Bad, and the Confusing From the First Six Months of Cannabis Decriminalization

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Six months after the decriminalization of cannabis in Trinidad and Tobago, some early results are in. 

Among other things, the nation has seen a significant drop in cannabis-related arrests. A somewhat confusing rollout and COVID-related delays have, however, pushed back the establishment of a fully regulated medical cannabis industry and fueled an apparent spurt in illicit cultivation.

When amendments to the country’s Dangerous Drugs Act were pitched to the population and members of Parliament six months ago, Faris Al Rawi, the Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, said it would be  the country’s most aggressive realignment in the area of drug policy and criminal justice reform in decades. Indeed, the Act allows persons to possess up to thirty grams of cannabis and five grams of cannabis resin without penalty, and it makes possession of between thirty grams and sixty grams of cannabis and up to 10 grams of cannabis resin a ticketable offense. Previously, any amount of cannabis resulted in a criminal penalty. 

So far, some results are significant. An analysis of data from the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service by Cannabis Wire shows that between January and December of 2019, a period before the Act was in force, the country’s Police Service arrested and charged 3,630 individuals for offenses related to cannabis: 3,254 for possession, and 376 for possession with the intent to sell. Since the passage of the Act in December, however, up until the end of April 2020, only 192 arrests have been made: 117 for possession, and 75 for possession with intent to sell. 

Still, parts of the decriminalization rollout have been “flawed,” Nazma Muller, a cannabis legalization activist, told Cannabis Wire. She pointed out, for example, that citizens still have no legal access to seeds, which the Ministry of Agriculture has said they will provide, although the Act has granted them the right to cultivate cannabis since December. Muller has again begun to protest the delays and announced plans to form a union to represent cannabis farmers in their dealings with the Government.

Meanwhile, misinterpretation of the Act, by both members of the public and law enforcement officials, has led to some bumps. For example, some people apparently assumed that home cultivation limits didn’t apply to seedlings, and some law enforcement officials thought that the limits on plants were per household versus per person. As a result, highly publicized arrests and seizures have increased anger over enforcement.

“The law is clear,” Al Rawi has said, clarifying that the home grow limit is four plants per adult. 

Many of the delays with the full rollout of decriminalization, Al Rawi said in a recent interview with local radio station i95.5 FM, are due to COVID-19. The pandemic slowed the progress of the Joint Select Committee, a legislative group that consists of members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The committee is currently reviewing regulations for the importation of cannabis-derived therapeutics under the provisions in the Dangerous Drugs Act, according to Al Rawi.

“The issue of cannabis isn’t a simple one,” Al Rawi said, referencing the Cannabis Control Bill, another piece of legislation that he pushed as part of the cannabis law reform push last year. 

That bill, which is still pending, seeks to legalize and regulate cannabis for religious and medicinal purposes, and to establish the Trinidad and Tobago Cannabis Licensing Authority to oversee businesses. Backers had hoped it would pass roughly in tandem with the decriminalization amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act. 

Despite the delays, some citizens appear to be getting a head start on large scale cultivation and sales anyway. 

Data from the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service reviewed by Cannabis Wire shows that there has been a steep uptick in the discovery of cannabis seedlings during eradication exercises. More than 100,000 have been found and destroyed through the end of April 2020. For all of 2019 that number stood at about 60,000. Citizens have also been repeatedly warned that the sale of cannabis or products derived from it remains prohibited.

Paul Richard, one of the country’s nine Independent Senators, told Cannabis Wire that decriminalization was long overdue because of the former drug law’s “impact on specific segments of society, which were being penalized more than any other segment,” he said, a reference to the disproportionate enforcement against Afro-Trinbagonian youth. 

Trinidad and Tobago’s opposition party, formed by the United National Congress, agrees with the thrust of the decriminalization efforts, as Cannabis Wire previously reported. But for them, the main concerns, according to parliament member Roodal Moonilal, are “the challenges” currently faced by officials in enforcing and regulating personal possession and the lack of clearer policy to develop an industry.

However, some civil society groups, such as the Archdiocese of Port of Spain and All Mansions of Rastafari, have spent the last year at odds with legislators on the scope of cannabis reform.

In a virtual symposium on cannabis hosted on Friday by the Catholic Commission for Social Justice, Jason Gordon, the Archbishop of Port of Spain, said that while he doesn’t support the criminalization of cannabis consumers, he is against making cannabis “partially legalized,” as he felt was done under the Act. Gordon says it is his preference that legalization for adult use cannabis to remain prohibited and for medical research to be allowed.

Meanwhile, members of the Rastafarian faith, who generally support legalization, have  called for representation on the board of the proposed cannabis regulatory Authority.

According to the Committee’s most recent report there is a tentative agreement to allow for some of these civil groups to make oral comments or clarifications to their positions on the record. Those oral submissions, according to the report, will help to develop the Committee’s final report on proposed changes to the Bill, which is due June 30.

Members of the Committee have also asked the country’s Chief Parliamentary Counsel to conduct an analysis of cannabis usage and licensing regulations in Antigua and Barbuda as well as Barbados as the committee attempts to match Trinidad and Tobago’s regulations against those developed by other countries in the region.

When that work will be completed is up in the air. Many activists, including Muller, believe that the Committee will seek another extension before delivering its final report. That, in turn, will fuel “frustration,” according to Kevin Edmonds, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Department of International Development Studies, who has researched approaches the Caribbean should take to cannabis decriminalization and taxation. He told Cannabis Wire such frustration is “understandable, as Trinidad and Tobago is much better positioned than other countries to transition into the medicinal industry, given its advantage in industrial capacity and infrastructure.”

Legislators are pressed by a more consequential deadline, however. The country is due to hold general elections in the second half of 2020 and its Parliament is constitutionally due to be dissolved in September. If the bill fails to be passed by then, it is unclear when it will again be taken up.

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