Nandi Outerbridge
Nandi Outerbridge

Most people, if asked, would say it’s best to look before you leap. I’m one of them.

The Government’s plan for a national discussion on decriminalizing marijuana strikes me as a careful and inclusive way to approach a controversial and complex issue that previous governments shied from for years.

My colleagues have been very deliberate in taking the lead on this issue.  November’s Throne Speech committed the Government to producing a public consultation paper on decriminalization — to inform the community of competing research on marijuana, its uses and the potential impact any shift in policy might have on the Island.

In December, National Security Minister Michael Dunkley was approached by two individuals separately who wanted to be involved in the discussion. 

He informed them that he would agree to them forming a bipartisan committee to gather information and then present their work to the Ministry for consideration.

So the discussion is getting started and it appears by the number of stories in the press, comments on the blogs and conversations in the street that people are ready for it. Perhaps I was naïve to think this good effort would not get sidetracked by politics as usual, whereby partisan political advantage becomes more important than community advantage.

But the PLP leadership’s announcement this week that they intend to table a Bill in the House of Assembly to decriminalize the possession, handling and use of  up to 20 grams of cannabis is just that — politics before policy, and country; a leap without looking. 

The biggest reason I favour reform is to end US travel restrictions — the so-called ‘stop list’ — against Bermudians convicted of a cannabis offence. I have seen too many friends and peers penalized for life this way. It is unjust, particularly for those convicted of mere possession.

Mr. Dunkley has said that eliminating the ‘stop list’ restriction is one of the main aims of any reform, so I am fully onboard with that objective, as I’m sure are a large majority of Bermudians.

But the PLP Bill is pushing forward a plan that could jeopardize essential US cooperation. As Mr. Dunkley said, it is ‘simply irresponsible’.

“Every jurisdiction that has legalized cannabis has done so with detailed regulations dealing with critical issues like production, sale, supply and conditions of use. On its own, this [PLP] Bill is reckless because none of these things seem to have been considered.”

It reminds me of the PLP’s out-of-the-blue move in November to table a Bill to eliminate conscription. These two issues — conscription and cannabis reform — were never actively addressed by previous PLP Governments, despite the fact that they had 14 years in office to do something. 

And yet when the new OBA Government starts moving on the issues, the PLP is seized by the need to move with the “urgency of now”. Politics, nothing more. 

I got a glimpse of what Mr. Dunkley meant when he described the PLP Bill as reckless. I was speaking to a few young men while canvassing and they said 20 grams was “a huge just-thrown-out-there amount”. They told me  20 grams had a minimum street value of $450, but could sell for up to $1,200 depending on the quality; and that no one carrying 20 grams has it for personal use unless for “personal sales”.

I am also concerned about a move to decriminalize possession that doesn’t address supply and distribution. Who, after all, will be selling weed? Under the PLP Bill, it’s not going to be licensed distributors. This is not addressed in the PLP Bill.

If we are going to do anything about decriminalizing possession, it’s got to be the result of a sincere and comprehensive national conversation that leads to change that works for the people of Bermuda, not just the short-term objectives of one political party. Let’s look, talk, argue and agree before we leap. The Government is setting up this national discussion for that to happen. It’s the way to go. n