– Rastafarian Council
It is the belief of General Secretary of the Guyana Rastafari Council, Khafra Messdjehuti, that the sustained criminalization of marijuana possession and the stigma on its use disproportionately condemns young people and African Guyanese, in particular, to lives of criminality and poverty.
And so, he contends that public discourse about marijuana must always see advocacy for decriminalization and consider it in a social justice context.
As the country drags on to a highly contentious General and Regional Elections season ahead of First Oil, the Opposition Leader, Bharrat Jagdeo, has cautioned that Government’s proposal to have custodial sentences be removed for the possession of small quantities of marijuana, is nothing more than political fodder.
In an interview with Kaieteur News, Messdjehuti, in commenting on Government’s plan, said that the Rastafarian community is cautiously optimistic, as it has been challenging Government to act swiftly on this issue for several years.
In the meantime, those communities named by Messdjehuti are being systematically depressed, he told Kaieteur News.
The CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana in a 2018 report had made similar assertions, that the efforts of Governments and law enforcement to police the use, possession and trafficking of marijuana creates a system of disadvantage for certain racial groupings and classes of people.
Data, according to the report, suggests that drug usage is often, for poorer communities, a coping mechanism to deal with lack of opportunities; that the drug doesn’t cause violence but that it causes criminal activity in the context of a society where the drug is illegal and frowned upon, through turf wars and gang violence.
Messdjehuti, who is also a social worker, said that, first; decriminalization would start the process of removing the negative stigma from the plant, adding that the preconceived notion that cannabis use is criminal tends to inform assumptions about what effect it will have on people’s behaviour and health.
He even pointed to a World Health Organisation (WHO) report that recommended the reclassification of marijuana under multilateral and bilateral treaties under categories not as strict as it is currently held.
In an interview with Senior Psychologist at the Mental Health Institute, Balogun Osunbiyi, who is also a drug treatment and prevention specialist, it was revealed that a significant portion of the patients, according to recent data, housed at the National Psychiatric Hospital in New Amsterdam, are there because of substance induced psychosis and are users of marijuana.
Messdjehuti indicated that he is wary of the impression the statistics create, even going so far as disputing whether those patients are suffering specifically from marijuana induced psychosis. He contended that addiction to marijuana is only psychological in nature, and that it would be dishonest of any public health official to discuss addiction to the drug without making the distinction. He said that with psychological dependence, the issue has more to do with the mind than the cannabis, comparing it to addictions to gambling or pornography.
He further argued that, in many cases, persons who use marijuana and suffer substance induced psychosis are also using other drugs which could be the source of that psychosis.
Osunbiyi had acknowledged that that argument could be made, but maintained that the use of marijuana is an important public health issue. He had said that for decriminalisation to occur, there would need to be in place a robust system to provide socio-sanitary care for users. Pointing to other countries which have already started the path to decriminalization and commercialization of the plant, he had said that that is possible because those countries are much better resourced and prepared to deal with the increase in use the move to decriminalise would cause.
Messdjehuti argued that many countries which are on this path, which he refers to as “former colonial countries” are trying to gain an economic advantage from the commercialization of marijuana and so, through bilateral agreements, seek to suppress attempts at decriminalization in smaller countries like Guyana.
He said that the Rastafarian community has been challenging mainly the aspect of the review of the drug’s classification which caters to the human and Constitutional right of freedom of worship.
For several years now, he said that the Rastafarian community has been recognised as part of the religious community, and that it would be inconsistent to recognise them as a religious community while maintaining legislation that does not recognise their religious practice.
He gave what he said were scriptural justifications in the Bible for the use of cannabis as incense, during prayer.
Asked about the use of marijuana recreationally, he said that the community does not draw any distinction because it doesn’t differentiate between worship and recreation.
He went on to say that cannabis has been used for centuries, not just for smoking but to make a range of other useful by-products like paper, oil and houses made from hemp; adding that decriminalisation would not only benefit the Rastafarian community, but society at large in a monumental way.
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