Antigua Prime Minister Gaston Browne.
Photo courtesy of Antigua government

To some in Antigua, the timing and passing of a bill legalizing the possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana for personal use, have everything to do with upcoming general elections but Prime Minister Gaston Browne says Antigua and Barbuda simply doesn’t want to be left behind and is tired of jailing young people for having small amounts of cannabis on their person.

And so, the administration used its vast majority in the Lower House of Parliament this week to approve an amendment to the drugs act, allowing locals to legally possess up to 15 grams without hassle from police and law enforcement agents.

As Browne told a morning session of the House of Representatives on Tuesday, the island is taking its cue from many countries in the developed world, which have taken a rather enlightened approach to marijuana possession for recreational and medicinal usage while waiting on other governments in the 15-nation Caribbean Community to approach the issue as a bloc of nations rather than as individual nations.

Caribbean leaders meeting in Haiti at month end are expected to review the work of a commission reviewing the regional approach to the narcotic, whether it is for recreational or medicinal use or whether the narcotic can be reclassified to allow farmers to produce plants and the finished product for local supplies in a decriminalized environment or for export to countries which have relaxed laws.

A complete discussion on the issue is slated for the main July summit, which is scheduled for Jamaica in early July. Antigua now joins Jamaica and Belize in moving to reclassify the drug. Some of the others in the bloc say they are awaiting the recommendations of the commission before taking the leap.

General elections in Antigua are expected in the next two months and Browne’s critics have accused him of timing the introduction and passage of the bill just weeks before he is constitutionally mandated to name a date for general elections simply to win hearts and minds. This week’s sitting of the Lower House represented a culmination of more than a year of consultations both in Antigua and Barbuda, which was devastated by Hurricane Irma last summer.

Experts had originally proposed a maximum of 10 grams of marijuana but the final cut of the bill now allows for up to 15.

“I want to make it abundantly clear that my government is not advocating the use of cannabis. We are against anything that is smoked but we do accept, though, on the other hand, that marijuana utilized in different forms has significant medicinal benefits and certainly we’ll move pretty quickly to ensure that we legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes,” he said as opposition lawmakers listened respectfully.

The Upper House is next in line to debate the bill but no one is expecting any no votes that could prevent it from going forward.

Browne said he does think of the day when it would become possible for the island’s tourist industry to have special “smoke longue areas set aside where tourists could come and enjoy recreational marijuana use as is done in other countries in a controlled and legal environment. “We can have marijuana resorts too” and this could help to certainly “diversity the tourism economy.”

He even pointed to the fact that former finance and foreign minister Harold Lovell is a well known recreational marijuana user even as he announced plans to scrub criminal records of Antiguans and Barbudans who were previously convicted for possessing small amounts. A new lease of life would be given to them he said, bringing “them back into the mainstream, given a new lease of life.”

The bill also allows an individual household to have no more than four cannabis plants in their yards without fear of being charged. Looking into the future, Browne said that if the time comes when there is a commercial marijuana sector, it would only be right for the Rastafarian community to get a first bite at it as they have been in the vanguard of the lobby to legalize and many of its brethren have suffered at the hands of the police and law enforcement.

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