Statement by Premier Michael Dunkley

Mr. Speaker , the Motion before this Honourable House invites the Honourable Members to take note of the Report of the Cannabis Reform Collaborative. On its face, this is a simple Motion in support of another Report.

However, Mr. Speaker , the debate in this Honourable House today is one that joins Bermuda with many other countries who have wrestled with the issue of cannabis reform. Even considering this issue has the ability to provoke strong feelings. Honourable Members will be affected and influenced by core values grounded in religious faith, cultural traditions, personal and professional experiences as well as the societal discomfort that accompanies any potential for change.

Mr. Speaker , none of these factors should cause Honourable Members to shy away from a full expression of their views because it is precisely for these reasons that each of us was elected to this Honourable House. Our constituents expect for us, in representing them, to bring to bear all of our experience and thoughtful consideration to debate and to consult with them as part of our public service.

Mr. Speaker , today’s debate is an opportunity to reflect on the research provided and the recommendations made. It is also an opportunity for the people of Bermuda to understand exactly where their representatives stand on some of the thorny issues that surround the reform of our cannabis laws.

The Government’s Promise

Mr. Speaker , in the November 2013 Speech from the Throne, the Government signaled the intention to provide some leadership in the public debate on cannabis. The Government promised:

“ to produce ( in this Session) a public consultation paper on the decriminalization of marijuana and an examination of its wider uses.”

As I introduce this Motion for debate, Mr. Speaker , I am pleased to say that the Government has delivered on that promise. The Report that has been tabled in this Honourable House is a document forged through the hard work of young men and women in this community who engaged the public through various media and whose research stands as a body of work that serves to further the debate on the issue of cannabis law reform.

Mr. Speaker , as I indicated in my statement to this Honourable House two weeks ago, shortly after the announcement in the Throne Speech, Mr. Stratton Hatfield and Mr. Khomeini Talib-Din approached me individually to express their interest in facilitating and participating in the promised public consultation. I put the two men together and advised them to recruit additional members, with like interest, to form the Cannabis Reform Collaborative (the “CRC”). The group began meeting on 5th December and had as its mandate to produce an advisory document on cannabis policy reform that identifies the benefits and consequences of reclassifying, legalizing, or decriminalizing Cannabis; and to investigate its medicinal uses.

Mr. Speaker , in addition to the Chair Mr. Hatfield and Mr. Talib-Din, the CRC comprised Lamar Caines, Jules Van Belen, Cordell Reily, Dr. Ernest Peets, Robyn Swan, Kyle Bridgewater, Alex Jones, Harry Masters and Joleesa Simons. Together, the CRC has experience and varying levels of expertise in activism, policy, law, addictions treatment and drug education. The CRC worked diligently to engage the public in discussions about Bermuda’s current cannabis policies and to canvass the public’s views on reform through town hall style meetings, focus groups and electronic surveys.

Mr. Speaker , while the public debate over the last several months has been wide-ranging, I think is important to reiterate that the Government’s public undertaking has related to decriminalization and any potential wider use of cannabis. Let me indicate early in this debate that at this time, the Government is not prepared to consider personal cultivation, licenses for commercial cultivation and sale or blanket legalization of cannabis. Insofar as this report recommends those things, they do not represent this Government’s current intentions.

The Research

To say that the scientific research in the area of cannabis use is divergent would be an understatement. A cursory search of the internet will reveal praise and vitriol for cannabis use from across the scientific spectrum. Mr. Speaker , this debate will not resolve the scientific questions that surround the use of cannabis but the divergence of views among respected medical professionals should encourage caution in our approach to any change to our laws and policies.

Mr. Speaker , I do not propose to rehearse the competing findings of the detailed research that has been done in this field. However, I will indicate that in my view, unregulated use of cannabis defies the nature of the substance and ignores the effects it has had on communities around the world and in Bermuda also. It is wrong to yield to a more permissive attitude socially without due regard to the social, economic and health consequences that hold equal weight in those studies conducted.

Mr. Speaker , inherent in the most liberal approach to cannabis reform is the suggestion that any adverse effects of lessening regulation be regarded as a public health issue. This position admits that there are risks and it is with these risks in mind that Governments must approach legislative change cautiously and with a comprehensive management plan in place.

Mr. Speaker , as the Report says in recommendation 5:

“A phased approach to cannabis reform offers the benefits of assessing, establishing and implementing long term plans that focus on more efficient prevention initiatives, effective treatment programmes that are supported by the Ministry of Health and sensible society- guided regulations that our community understands.”

This caution is especially important when considering young people. Mr. Speaker , a US Department of Justice publication of January 2014 determined that marijuana use among youth is rising as perception of risk decreases. That publication stated, in part, “ An adolescent’s perception of risks associated with substance abuse is an important determinant of whether he or she engages in substance abuse……..when anti-drug attitudes soften there is a corresponding increase in drug use in the coming years…..”

Mr. Speaker , later in this debate I will turn to the Government’s views on the issue of cannabis for medical use, however, let me be clear: it is not the Government’s role to take sides in the medical or scientific debate. Any move to permit greater access to cannabis for medical purposes will, by definition, be regulated like any other medically prescribed drug. Doctors will do what they have done for centuries: prescribe what they consider is best for their patient. The Government’s role as regulator is to ensure quality control, proper storage and dispensing protocols.

The Recommendations

Mr. Speaker , the Committee’s recommendations are spread throughout the Report; however the Executive Summary found at pages 5 through 9 provides a useful glance at the overall findings of the Committee. The main recommendations are as follows:

The age of consent for access and consumption of cannabis and alcohol should both be 21

Companies providing group health insurance must offer insurance coverage to treat alcoholism and drug addiction

Personal possession and personal cultivation should be decriminalized immediately

Immediate action should be taken to enable access to medical cannabis with a prescription to individuals by way of a regulation under the existing legislation pending the revision of specific policies and alternate legislation

Increase resources for prevention and educational initiatives.

Mr. Speaker , I intend to focus on these five (5) recommendations as they capture the essence of the Committee’s views on cannabis reform.

Raising the age of consent to 21

Mr. Speaker , it is important for me to clearly state that the link between alcohol use and cannabis use and therefore an age of consent being imposed for both is not a line of thinking this Government supports.

There is no plan to sanction or permit the legal use of cannabis by anyone except in circumstances to which I will turn in due course. Therefore, the suggestion that an age of consent be even considered is a non-starter.

Honourable Members will recall my previous statements surrounding all that is done in the community to reduce the harm of alcohol abuse. Mr. Speaker , we have a fairly well developed social and societal set of values that encourages and advocates around responsible use of alcohol. To simply add cannabis use into that framework is not best practice and as such this recommendation is not supported.

Companies providing group health insurance must offer insurance coverage to treat alcoholism and drug addiction

Mr. Speaker , we must be in the business of lifting people up. Substance abuse has ruined many lives and careers. Sometimes the level of intervention required is expensive and intense. In order to save our people and to ensure that as many Bermudians who are willing and able to work can do so and contribute to this economy, we cannot consign those with substance abuse problems to the ranks of the unemployed or unemployable without some effort.

A balance must be struck that rewards employers for demanding drug-free workplaces and who go the extra mile to assist those of their employees who fall into the destructive cycle of substance abuse. That balance must include the ability of employers and employees to rely on insurance coverage for such interventions when reasonably required. Mr. Speaker , this is one of those items which if not handled correctly can add to the cost of doing business in Bermuda and I wish to say from the outset that this Government does not propose anything that will add to the burden of local businesses who continue to struggle to keep citizens employed.

I believe that there is room for discussion in this area and that the Government can lead in devising a means by which to include reasonable substance abuse treatment as part of group insurance plans in this country.

Personal possession and personal cultivation should be decriminalized immediately

Mr. Speaker , one of the stated aims of the examination of Bermuda’s cannabis laws is to ameliorate the consequences of instances where, young people in particular, are caught with small amounts of cannabis and then have their travel, education and employment prospects adversely affected, sometimes for life.

The decriminalization of possession of small amounts of cannabis is one means that has been suggested to deal with this issue. However, a closer examination of the laws of both Bermuda and our nearest trading partner, the United States is required to ensure that we achieve the intended aim.

Mr. Speaker , for several years the Department of Public Prosecutions has provided guidance to the Bermuda Police Service in circumstances where a formal caution is given where an individual is found to be in possession of cannabis for personal use. The caution policy is canvassed at pages 43 – 47 of the Report. At page 44, the Report quotes the Commissioner of Police:

“There have been 194 cautions for drug possession to local persons and 1 for importation (cruise ship or airport related to an overseas visitor) since December 21st 2010. The original caution authority given to the police by the DPP in 2010 was rescinded in 2012. Cautions now require prior approval from the DPP before they are administered.”

In considering whether a caution should be administered, the DPP considers several criteria including the amount of cannabis, the antecedents of the offender, his/her admission of culpability and any factors that might indicate that the drug was for supply and not personal use. The requirement to consider such criteria means that in some cases, possession of relatively small amounts of cannabis might still occasion an appearance in court and a possible conviction for a drug offence.

Mr. Speaker , I am pleased to advise this Honourable House that with the assistance of the learned Attorney General we are in discussions with the DPP to revert to the 2010 position and allow cautions to be given by the Police. The power of the DPP to institute charges remains in his discretion, but allowing the Police to handle cautions in this way will be far more efficient in this area of criminal justice.

Mr. Speaker , it is therefore an essential element of this debate that we determine whether that criteria is abandoned in favour a blanket decriminalization approach based solely on the amount of drug possessed or if we use the “youthful indiscretion” test as the means by which to remove the criminality associated with a first offence possession of cannabis.

This is not an easy choice and in the coming weeks and months the Government will consider this policy point in detail before returning to this House with any legislative change.

What is critical in this discussion, Mr. Speaker , is the effect of whatever policy we devise on the travel of our citizens to the United States. I am grateful to the Consul General, Mr. Bob Settje, who met with the Committee and who has helpfully correctly stated the US position in this area.

Mr. Speaker , the Report omits a significant point with respect to US law. Whether decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana for personal use would or would not have “Stop List” consequences – and how - depends on what is meant by “decriminalization.”  If “decriminalization” means de facto legalization, i.e., no consequences whatsoever for possession, then there would be no “conviction” under U.S. law, so one who merely possessed marijuana would not be inadmissible for having a drug-related conviction.  (He/she could still be found inadmissible as a trafficker or as an abuser or dependent, if the surrounding circumstances indicated that was the case.)  However, if “decriminalization” carries a penalty of any kind – paying a fine, being on probation, going to a drug treatment program, performing community service, etc. – it would be treated as a “conviction,” and it would have “Stop List” consequences.  Put simply, if “decriminalization” means something more (in terms of penalty) than “legalization,” there are possible consequences. 

Therefore Mr. Speaker , we must proceed with care because simply decriminalizing possession of small amount of cannabis isn’t the only answer to the problems we are in fact trying to fix.

Mr. Speaker , this is probably the best time for me to address an issue that cuts to the heart of a portion of the Report. Honourable Members will have noted the Report’s argument regarding the disproportionate impact of cannabis related offences on the black community. These statistics are real and may provoke fierce debate themselves. However, Mr. Speaker , as many authors in the United States have indicated, “ …the case against legal cannabis starts with the position that legalization won’t end racism in the criminal justice system”. If the Report speaks to systemic injustice then wholesale systemic change is the only solution to the problems identified. Even if we eventually decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis, this will not fix the systemic risk of social, economic and criminal justice issues complained about in the Report.

If a system is inherently biased against one group, then from an enforcement perspective, the answer is not to wantonly decriminalize otherwise illegal behaviour; the answer is to change the system.

Immediate action should be taken to enable access to medical cannabis with a prescription to individuals by way of a regulation under the existing legislation pending the revision of specific policies and alternate legislation

Mr. Speaker , I would refer Honourable Members to pages 96 – 110 of the Report which deals with Cannabis as a medicinal substance. As the Report indicates, a study of the medical positions on the use of cannabis could fill volumes and is the continuing subject of much scientific debate.

Mr. Speaker , recent studies have found that cannabis has brought relief to those suffering from cancer, glaucoma and other diseases that cause chronic pain. There are various means of using cannabis medically, including smoking, by means of a vaporizer, oils for topical application and ingesting. Smoking is the least preferred method of medical use as many studies have found that this method can harm the lungs. In the 2014 US Department of Justice I referred to earlier, Dr. David Murray, formerly Chief Scientist at the Office of National Drug Control noted that: “ People who smoke marijuana are subject to bacterial infections in the lungs…is this really what a physician who is treating someone with a compromised immune system wants to prescribe?” Even with medical use, cannabis must be managed carefully.

Mr. Speaker , a useful case study can be found at page 105 of the Report. Israel continues to classify cannabis as an illegal substance but has a robust medical cannabis system affording access to seriously ill patients. The Report sets it out as follows:

“Cannabis medical use has been permitted in Israel for cancer patients and those with pain-related illnesses…..Patients can smoke the drug, ingest it in liquid form, or apply it to the skin as a balm. The numbers of patients authorized to use cannabis in Israel in 2012 was over 10,000, a number that has swelled dramatically, up from serving just a few hundred patients in 2005. According to reports, Israel has a $40m medical cannabis industry…”

Mr. Speaker , the industry is not without its problems as the Report also indicates that some 15 tonnes of medical cannabis are stolen each year. This is a clear indication of the need to properly regulate all aspects of this permitted use.

Mr. Speaker , I do not think that it is for the Government to come between the needs of any patient and the responsible, professional advice of his or her physician. Where the potential for relief exists in the use of cannabis for medical purposes, the Government’s responsibility is to sensitively and prudently regulate that use in the best interests of healthcare generally and public safety in particular. Mr. Speaker , the public advocacy in this area has, to some degree, gotten ahead of the science.

Achieving the necessary balance in the area of medical cannabis means ensuring that all necessary, scientific protocols are in place and that whatever Regulations are developed reflect best practice generally and the added degree of caution required with a substance like cannabis. This will be done in close consultation with the Ministry of Health and Environment.

Increase resources for prevention and educational initiatives.

Mr. Speaker , the old saying is “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. That applies in this area of demand reduction which is canvassed at pages 66-86 of the Report.

The Committee’s recommendation for an increase in resources for prevention and educational initiatives must be viewed in the proper context. Honourable Members will know that this area of prevention and treatment is one of the thriving charitable sectors in this community. I say thriving because there are a number of organizations engaged directly and on the margins of prevention. So much so Mr. Speaker  that the donor community can be forgiven for some confusion over just what our approach to prevention is.

Mr. Speaker , Honourable Members will see a chart at page 75 of the report which purports to represent the Government’s budgetary allocation for prevention, treatment and enforcement. Without more, Mr. Speaker , this chart is misleading. Treatment simply costs more than prevention. A strict comparison of resource allocation without reference to this fact ignores the significant prevention work which is often cost neutral or relatively inexpensive when compared to treatment requirements. Similarly, enforcement and interdiction is labour intensive and that labour is often paid at a premium.

In fact, Mr. Speaker , the Report lays out the considerable efforts of several organizations in the area of prevention and their successes are well known in the community. Where we might provide some leadership in the management of resource allocation on the areas of treatment and prevention is to marshal the message to the donor community so that it is clearer to what area funds are most needed and for what purposes.

Conclusion

Mr. Speaker , this Report forms a useful backdrop for an important, topical debate in this Honourable House. The Report does not contain all of the answers but it does stimulate many useful questions.

The public discussion that arose as a result of the work of the Cannabis Reform Collaborative was insightful and I am grateful to those members of the public who made their views known.

As I commend this Motion to the Honourable House for debate, I wish to assure the people of Bermuda that this Government fully appreciates the gravity of any change in our approach to cannabis as a community. The reform of our cannabis laws and policies will be measured and done with the best interests of the country as a whole in mind.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker .