Government must be very careful about the perception it creates in its move to have custodial sentences removed for the possession of small quantities of marijuana.
This is the assertion of Philip Drayton, a drug treatment specialist with the Organisation of American States (OAS) and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Life Reform, a local organization which deals in rehabilitation and treatment of abusers and dependents of drugs.
In an interview with Kaieteur News, Drayton noted recent developments in Government as it relates to the likely reforms to a drug law. On July 2 last, Cabinet approved a proposal that would see the removal of custodial sentences for persons who are found to be in possession of 30 grams of marijuana or less. Cabinet’s decision will now be conveyed to Parliament where it will be further debated to make the amendments to the relevant laws governing the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Act.
There had been an outcry from members of the public after the recent jailing of a father of three for the possession of eight grams of marijuana. Twenty-seven-year-old Carl Mangal was sentenced on May 21 in the Magistrate’s Court for three years, and was fined $30,000. According to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Act, his offence carries a fine and jail time of no less than three years and no more than five years.
Drayton said that there appears to be a misconception among the general public that Government intends to decriminalise the possession of marijuana, when in reality, it would still be considered criminal.
The penalty of a fine would remain, and an amendment to the act could include community service.
Drayton has acknowledged that the removal of custodial sentences for possession of small quantities could have few positive effects, like increasing the likelihood for rehabilitation among abusers and dependents. But he maintains that the amendment would cause a spike in marijuana use, and that is worrying.
Drayton said that, in many sections of the public, an argument is made that there would be a significant financial and economic benefit to decriminalisation and industrialisation of the drug.
But in these cases, he stated that persons who reproduce that rhetoric are likely already educated on the effects of marijuana usage, and have already decided that they “don’t care which life they destroy”, putting profit over the wellbeing of the society.
“They are willing to compromise the health and life of human beings. This must not happen.” Drayton said.
He warns that, in the future, as Guyana’s wealth rapidly increases, it is likely to see a multitude of new drugs being introduced into the country. This, he says, Guyana must be ready to tackle.
All in all, he is of the opinion that all drugs need a policy review.
Asked how one could identify the distinction between use and misuse of a drug like cannabis, the drug treatment specialist said that there aren’t always clear distinctions to draw between the stages; there is a progression of misuse of drugs, with seven stages, a classification used by Life Reform.
The first stage is Exposure, where an individual comes into contact with a drug, or is exposed to someone using the drug or finds themselves in an environment which facilitates drug use. In most communities that Life Reform has visited, there is a drug block present, Drayton said.
For alcohol, he said, that this is very common, as many community shops also serve as liquor stores. For marijuana, the prevalence is not as pronounced, but the specialist worries that the amendment would start on the path to bridging that gap.
The second stage of the progression, he provided, is Experimentation, when an individual comes into contact with the drug and tries it. He noted that, for much of the younger generation, marijuana is a very popular drug. Drayton said that when an individual tries marijuana, a mind-altering drug, it creates the impression that there is a distance between the psychological mind and the physical body, a perception he says is false. He explained that the drug interferes with the body’s cannabinoid receptors, which involve a set of physiological processes including cognition, memory, motor receptors and emotional responses. A user would experience instant gratification.
Persons who use marijuana can experience a cannabis-induced psychosis. In that state, users experience paranoia, delusions, disorganised thinking, or even hallucinations.
When a person gets to the third stage of the progression of misuse of a drug, they have begun using it for Recreation, he said. Drayton provided that about 84 percent of marijuana users in Guyana are doing so for recreational purposes, due to the perception that it “takes the edge off”.
At the fourth stage, a person is maintaining Regular Use; Drayton said that the user would seek out the drug more frequently until it becomes a part of their lifestyle.
At the fifth stage, he said that the individual would keep using the drug despite the negative consequences of its use. This stage is called Abuse. Here is where a user’s life would start becoming difficult to manage, Drayton said.
At the sixth stage, called Compulsion, Drayton said that social workers and drug treatment specialists can pinpoint regular manipulations of persons who use regularly. An example of such a manipulation would be, Drayton said, compulsive lying and going to lengths to maintain such lies. He added that this is noticed frequently in some children who use, as regular drug use affects their brain chemistry and inhibits their academic productivity.
He explained that the user’s body starts to experience a shut down. At this point, the body is overburdened, so that person would have to rest for long periods of time to recover. Drayton said it creates irregular sleeping patterns.
“Regardless of how long, society is functioning but if you have to sleep all day, the individual is becoming an unproductive member of society.”
The last stage of the progression of misuse of drugs is the stage of Dependence. At this point, a person’s body requires the drug to function. If a person attempts to wean off the drug, they experience startling withdrawal symptoms.
Drayton said that there are persons who may be smoking for as long as eight, ten or fifteen years, and that that does irreparable damage to their brains.
The principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis is Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). In Guyana, Drayton said that the marijuana contains extremely high levels, at about 24-32 percent. It is common for people to smoke marijuana. Alternatively, cannabis oil can be infused into cannabis brownies or cookies.
Drayton said that there is a third, popular form of the drug, called ‘Shatta’, when the oil is refined into a rock-like substance, which has the consistency of sugar. In this form, persons would snort the substance. This is the most dangerous form, he said, because the THC levels would reach 72-80 percent, and persons who use it are “higher” for longer periods of time. And the longer a person stays “high”, the more likely it is for them to go into a psychotic break, Drayton said.
Currently, the drug treatment specialist said that efforts of local actors involved in the fight against drug abuse, are being concentrated on improving the local capacity to treat mental health issues.
With all that in mind, he noted that while removing custodial sentences for possession of small quantities shows that there is a willingness to remedy the situation, it doesn’t deal with the problem on a more fundamental basis.
He explained that, for persons who use the drug as an escape, or to “take the edge off” are in a position in which they are uneducated about vital life coping and refusal skills to practice.
“Smoking is a problem. Using is a problem” Drayton said.
And he is adamant that the public needs to be sensitised enough to be able to refuse.
In terms of efforts to provide a better response to users, government is currently working on establishing drug treatment courts.
Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramjattan, had said that the Drug Courts will take a public health approach using a specialised model in which the judiciary, prosecutors, probation and social service officers, health personnel and treatment communities will work together to help addicted offenders into long-term recovery.
Adding that lawyers, prosecutors, and magistrates can decide the conditions so those persons can receive treatment instead of serving jail time, Minister Ramjattan had said, “Rather than jail, the drug offender, ask them whether they are willing to go through a treatment process and that is the important thing here…”
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