Jack Cole *Photo by Danny McDonald
Jack Cole *Photo by Danny McDonald

Earlier this year, when Jack Cole, a former New Jersey undercover narcotics cop who now advocates for all drugs to be legalized, was in town to speak before Bermuda residents and politicians alike he summed up the international ripple effect of US drug policy thusly.

“We’re the big bully on the block.”

With Bermudian politicians now actively debating cannabis reform, US drug policy still casts a shadow over the discussion.

Currently, a conviction for possession of cannabis can complicate travel plans to America for Bermudians. Those with such a charge on their record often have to seek a travel waiver. And if Bermuda does opt for decriminalization, the prospective problems of being denied entry to the US or requesting a travel waiver will likely remain, since most decriminalization models involve a party making an admission of guilt. That’s enough to complicate travel plans to the US.

Consequences

This prospective problem has not escaped Premier Michael Dunkley. In recent comments, he said if decriminalization carries penalties, even if they are civil citations or fines, there are potential consequences.

“If decriminalization carries a penalty of any kind — paying a fine, being on probation, going to a drug treatment programme, performing service, etc. — it would be treated as a conviction and it would have (Stop List) consequences,” he said recently. 

Cordell Riley, a statistician by trade who was a member of the Cannabis Reform Collaborative charged with making recommendations to the government, said the US can also deny entry to people who do not have a criminal conviction.

“If we move to legalization and someone opens up a coffee shop that sold marijuana, which would be perfectly legal, they can still deny that person entry,” he said. “It’s interesting, there were people (in the House of Assembly) on Friday who made the announcement that they had used it before. It will be interesting to see if those who made some sort of admission are placed on the U.S. stop list. It’s not out of the realm of possibility.”

“As long as it remains a federal law, expect no changes,” said Mr Riley. “Decriminalization is not going to change it, at least if there is an admission of guilt.”

The US Consulate here in Bermuda confirmed: “There has been no change in how the US views conditional discharges. There has been a general misunderstanding about the effect of Bermuda’s “conditional discharge’,” said Astrid C. Black, a political assistant to the Consulate General, through an email. “Under US law, a conditional discharge does not eliminate the need for a waiver.”

She added: “A conviction is deemed to have occurred because the defendant pled guilty and/or admitted to the facts as part of the process and a penalty in the form of rehabilitation does not change the fact that a conviction occurred.”

The vast majority of Bermudians who are ineligible to travel to the U.S. have criminal convictions that include drug use, acts of violence, theft or fraud, according to Ms Black. There is, she said, no physical “stop list.”

Twenty-one US states have legalized medicinal marijuana and Colorado and Washington State have legalized recreational use of the drug, with other states contemplating similar measures. Right now, federal law still lists the drug as illicit, which contradicts some of the state laws. That fact will not change the reality here in Bermuda anytime soon.

“While the US government currently does not enforce some federal marijuana-related criminal statutes at the state level, there is as yet no indication that it intends to change travel or immigration law or policy to reflect or accommodate changes in state marijuana laws,” said Ms Black.