Where There’s Smoke…

Earlier this week, I came across a quote in The Royal Gazette by Pembroke MP Ashfield DeVent about the decriminalisation of the possession of cannabis. According to the August 28th RG article, Mr. DeVent says:

“Let’s have a debate. Let’s at least discuss it. Rather than put them in a criminal court, they could be first sent to a drugs awareness course. Then you can explain to them how drugs can affect them physically.”

Mr. DeVent was speaking in the context of the recent violence among young people and gangs, with drug use believed to be at the centre of a lot of the unrest the country has been experiencing of late.

Indeed, there should be drugs awareness courses and the adverse affects of drug use should be explained; however, such things should be emphasised before drug offences are committed. That is where time and resources should really be invested – in the prevention of drug use. For example, give more support to programmes like P.R.I.D.E. Bermuda and Youth-to-Youth. (I assume these groups are still functioning. I have been involved with both groups in the past and I remember the dedication and infectious enthusiasm of people like Judith Burgess that helped to make them a success.) Not only do these kinds of organizations equip youngsters and parents with information about drug use and abuse, but they also create a network of support which encourages positive peer pressure among young people and parents. This breeds a culture that promotes positive lifestyle choices and intolerance for antisocial behaviour and drug use, in particular.  

In addition to aggressive and effective prevention strategies, there must also be an emphasis on accountability. Decriminalisation proposals often stem from the desire to keep young people from having a criminal record because of the misguided choices of their youth. In some instances, many feel there must be particular compassion extended to these young offenders because some have been the product of a dysfunctional upbringing and it is felt that a criminal record only serves to stigmatise them further, setting their future in stone. These circumstances are beyond unfortunate and I do empathise, but the solution can be sought in effective treatment and rehabilitation programmes that move them away from drugs and any other associated antisocial behaviour and provide them with the tools and skills they need to cope with life and become productive and even exemplary members of society. It can be done. People in such situations have turned their lives around before and with the right kind of support and coaching it is possible for others to do the same.

We do a grave disservice to young people when we try to keep them from being fully accountable for their actions, no matter the consequences. It is all a part of learning and, yes, some lessons will be much tougher than others, but in order for them to get the lesson, they must suffer the consequences. It would pain me greatly to find someone close to me on the wrong side of the law, but if they were guilty, then, they would have to be held accountable. If you choose the behaviour, then you choose the consequences. End of story.

The harmful effects of cannabis use are well documented and I need not delve into them here, other than to underline how much they impair judgment, cognitive performance, and overall mental health. Quite frankly, the island already has enough problems with alcohol abuse. I think one would be hard-pressed to find someone who is not affected by alcoholism directly or indirectly. If it is not a family member or loved one, then it is a friend, a neighbour, or a colleague. There is always someone we know who has a problem with drinking and this affects their life and the lives of others in a host of unpleasant ways. The social, physical, and mental health issues are very costly. Let us not encourage the use of another substance that impairs performance and well-being.

The current method of classifying drug offences such that harsher penalties are meted out for harsher drugs is acceptable, although I am open to increased penalties and more stringent legislation surrounding drug use and dealing. And, yes, they must remain criminal offences.

If Bermuda is serious about getting a handle on the rising tide of violence and social problems it has been facing, relaxing laws on illicit drugs of any kind is unacceptable. Instead, what is really needed is a focus on the prevention of drug use, taking a hard line on offenders, and ensuring we have effective treatment and rehabilitation programmes – all while addressing the social problems that contribute to drug use and dealing in the first place. We must also teach young people to have a healthy regard for the law and set examples for them to follow, by respecting the spirit and letter of the law, ourselves. Everything we do in Bermuda must be about improving the quality of life for Bermudians and residents, in general; raising standards across the board for all of us; creating opportunities for residents to become the best that they can possibly be; and ensuring a safe and stable environment that is conducive to achieving this.

Decriminalising the possession of cannabis is simply not consistent with the standard of excellence upon which Bermuda should be building its reputation.

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~ by Carol-Ann Simmons on August 31, 2008.

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