* Photo by Kageaki Smith. “The proliferation of marijuana smoking is outrageous… What is more criminal is the indoctrination of young people. They grow up thinking this is normal behaviour…" says David Burch, Minister of Public Safety.
* Photo by Kageaki Smith. “The proliferation of marijuana smoking is outrageous… What is more criminal is the indoctrination of young people. They grow up thinking this is normal behaviour…" says David Burch, Minister of Public Safety.
Marijuana smokers are stunting their job prospects and helping finance Bermuda's gang war.

Public Safety Minister Colonel David Burch said the open and blatant use of the drug has reached "outrageous" new levels.

He said smoking marijuana is viewed as "innocuous" by many adults and has become so widespread some parents are openly lighting up as they drop their children off at school.

He is instructing police to take a more aggressive approach.

And he has urged users to forget about decriminalisation and consider the consequences of their habit. He said the cash people spend on marijuana goes directly into the hands of the criminals who have brought gun crime to the streets.

And he cautioned that the glorification of 'weed' is creating a culture where disrespect for the law prevails and children view the drug as relatively harmless.

But figures show cannabis addiction is crippling the job prospects of young men across Bermuda.

As few as one in 10 of the hundreds of applicants for jobs in the fire service, corrections and police force get past the first hurdle, with a huge chunk of them failing the mandatory drug test.

Time to get tough on marijuana

Our culture's too accepting of harmful habit, says minister

To many in Bermuda rolling a joint is no big deal. Weed is smoked openly at some football games and on street corners, celebrated in popular music and viewed as a lifestyle choice rather than an illegal activity.

Even the public debate on marijuana has mellowed in recent years.

The PLP research and platform committee is sounding out members on decriminalisation and some politicians, like Wayne Perinchief, have publically called for a relaxation of the laws.

But Public Safety minister Colonel David Burch takes a different view.

He doesn't want to hear from the pro-cannabis lobby and says if his party promotes decriminalisation he will resign from politics.

Minister Burch believes more enforcement, not less, is what is required on marijuana.

He says Bermudians are denying themselves job opportunities, funding gang activity and "indoctrinating" children to make the same mistakes every time they light up a joint in public.

He believes the blatant, open use of cannabis has reached "outrageous" new levels. And has called on the police to toughen up on casual drug users.

He has the backing of employers across Bermuda who say they are struggling to recruit young men who can pass a drug test.

Fire chief Vince Hollinsid said the service may have to recruit overseas to fill its 21 vacancies because of the alarming number of applicants who fail the medical, which includes a drug test.

He said enforcement in the service was only going to get tougher with a new policy of random testing for current employees coming on line this year. The bleak recruitment picture is reflected across the services.

Out of 106 applicants in a recent Prison Service recruitment drive only nine made it through the assessment process, which includes drug testing.

Minster Burch estimates that as few as 10 per cent of applicants for police, fire and corrections pass the first stage of the selection process, with the drug test the most significant barrier.

And with more and more private sector companies now adopting anti-drug policies, opportunities in the employment market are becoming slimmer for cannabis users

The minister, who revealed this week that as many as 1,400 people were unemployed, said out-of-work Bermudians could not afford to cut off opportunities simply because they liked to smoke weed.

"The proliferation of marijuana smoking in the country is outrageous. That is my personal view.

"What is more criminal is the indoctrination of young people. They grow up thinking this is normal behaviour 'it goes on in my household so it must be okay'."

He said he had heard anecdotes of parents dropping their children off at school with cannabis smoke billowing from the windows of their car.

"Why would you send your kid to school high? I think that is far more common than you would expect."

Figures from the Department of National Drug Control indicate that over 40 per cent of S4 students have smoked marijuana. The latest survey, in 2007, indicated that 26.5 per cent of S3 students had smoked weed in the past month.

The department is working on compiling statistics for the adult population of Bermuda.

Joanne Dean, director of the DNDC, said the organization was targeting children in a public relations campaign to convince them that smoking dope was not okay.

"Even though people think marijuana is innocuous it is still an illegal substance it introduces you to a certain culture and it has implications that come with that."

She said they were fighting against a public perception that smoking cannabis was harmless.

Minister Burch called on Bermudians to be more responsible in their approach to the drug.

"Adults in general have to do a better job in pointing out the negative effects to young people. I can only imagine the number of households where they are rolling joints with children running around in the kitchen."

Step up enforcement

He has instructed police to step up enforcement on cannabis.

"There has to be greater enforcement so people don't feel they have a rite of passage do it anywhere they like. People can bitch and moan but I want the police to do their job.

"You can't expect them to cherry pick and decide which laws to enforce - the lawlessness we have now is as a result of allowing things to go.

"People shouldn't feel it is alright to go to watch a football game and stand right there and smoke in front of everybody."

He said users should also be aware that the money they spend on marijuana goes directly into the pockets of gangsters.

He is not interested in debating decriminalisation as a potential solution. He says people simply need to get used to the idea that it is illegal and stop blaming others when they are fined or can't get jobs.

"Look at the number of people who get themselves on the U.S. stop list and then look for the Bermuda Government to fix it for them. It's not our fault you got on the stop list... you've been an idiot, there is a price to pay for being an idiot."

Employers and sporting bodies agreed that weed was a major barrier to opportunities, particularly for Bermudian young men.

Sports opportunities

Paul Scope, co-owner of the Bermuda Hogges football team, said the coaches had been forced to discount at least 40 players who may have made the squad over the last three years because they would not have been able to pass a test.

"Throughout Bermuda there are a lot of athletes who can't compete for their country because they wouldn't pass a drug test," said Mr Scope, who is an ex-officio member of the council for drug free sport.

"The vast majority wouldn't even bother turning up for a test because they know they are now quite reliable.

"I would say in virtually 100 per cent of those cases (failed tests) it is cannabis. Nobody is taking performance enhancing drugs.

"I'm not judgemental of people who use marijuana. I don't know whether it harms your body or not, it is irrelevant really. It is illegal and the sports bodies are testing for it so if you want to play sport for your country you can't do it."

Lieutenant Colonel Eddie Lamb, commissioner of corrections, said the service took a similar 'zero tolerance' approach. He said it had caused recruitment challenges because of the prevalence of cannabis use in Bermuda.

"It is a fact that the use of it is very pervasive in our community - by young and old alike. It is used all across our land; by those in baggy jeans and 'hoodies' as well as those in suits and ties."

Fire service

The challenge is even more pronounced at the fire service.

Chief fire officer Vincent Hollinsid said he got only six recruits, out of more than 100 applicants at a recruitment drive last summer.

"There are quite a number of people who pass the academic assessment, pass the physical fitness test but fail the drug test."

He said recent improvements in pay might make the fire service more attractive to an even wider pool of new recruits. But he admitted if February's recruitment drive did not produce results he would have to look overseas for the first time.

Despite that support Minister Burch believes he is swimming against the tide with his views on cannabis. He accepted young people might be more likely to listen to entertainers, like reggae superstar Collie Buddz whose lyrics celebrate cannabis, over a parliamentarian like himself.

But he cautioned: "They can listen to him all they like but they will be the ones on the stop list while he is still travelling around the world spouting this foolishness."

Viewpoint: Do you think it's okay for people to smoke marijuana?