CANU powers increased

by Michelle Elphage
Guyana Chronicle
March 21, 1999

THE Customs Anti-Narcotics Unit (CANU) has been given equal powers to the Police Force regarding drug arrests, under a law change that also softens previous stiff penalties imposed on persons caught with small amounts of marijuana (ganja).

Additional powers have also been vested in the Comptroller of Customs and any other person authorised by him.

However, though supporting the legislation piloted through its second and third readings Thursday by Attorney General, Mr. Charles Ramson, People's National Congress (PNC) member, Mr. Raphael Trotman questioned the legitimacy in which CANU was operating.

He said while he supports the work of the body, the PNC would prefer legislation taken to Parliament to establish this organisation.

CANU has been instrumental in carrying out several drug arrests, since its establishment, including the historic bust last year on the `cocaine' ship, the `Danielsen', the biggest cocaine seizure here.

In just under an hour of debate, Government and opposition members agreed the `ganja' law amendment was necessary if young people especially were to be given a "chance."

"The courts are now allowed to consider a much smaller penalty," Ramson said of the Narcotic Drugs Psychotropic Substances (Control) and (Amendment) Bill, 1999.

"The hands of the court were virtually tied under the principal act, even if the person was found with a small amount", he said.

He explained that the change to Section 73 of the Act was critical to the legislation, since it sought to "ameliorate the draconian aspect of the penalty provision in the Principal Act."

Under the 1988 legislation, offenders caught with any amount of marijuana, even small amounts, were subjected to the same heavy penalties imposed on those caught with far larger amounts.

Ramson also referred to the intense public debate the issue has generated, recalling a group of Rastafarians approached the Constitution Reform Select Committee during public hearings in the last Parliament.

Under the amended legislation:

* the fact that a person convicted of any offence under this Act was a child or young person on the date of the commission of that offence, may be deemed as a special reason; and

* where a person is convicted of an offence...for being in possession of cannabis (marijuana) was on the date of commission of the offence in the possession of an amount of cannabis not exceeding five grams, and the court is satisfied that such cannabis was in his possession only for his personal consumption, the court may deem such circumstances to be a special reason.

A person convicted summarily under the "special reason" offence will be fined not less than $3,000 and be subjected to six months community service, while an indictable offence carries a fine not less than $6,000 and community service for nine months.

Other amendments include a stiffening of the fines related to arrests for drug offences on the "high seas."

A summary conviction of this offence carries a $50,000 fine or three times the street value of the drug, whichever is more, with between five to ten years in prison.

An indictable offence, however, carries with it life imprisonment.

"There is nothing as unfortunate to see a family destroyed because one member is found with what is commonly referred to as a `joint' or a `spliff' and has had to spend three years in prison," Trotman told the House.

"We are also pleased that young persons will be given a chance and an opportunity to redeem themselves to seek rehabilitation if possible and that their lives will not be ruined, and that the courts may impose lesser fines and penalties and treat as special circumstances the age of the offender", he said.

Leader of The United Force (TUF), Mr. Manzoor Nadir, supported the Bill but proposed deleting the part allowing the court to deem as a "special reason, the circumstances where a person is convicted of being in possession of not exceeding five grammes of cannabis, which the court is satisfied was in the defendant's possession only for his personal consumption."

"I do not support the use of marijuana," he declared, but welcomed the intent of the legislation to decriminalise possession of small amounts of the prohibited drug.

His proposal was not accepted.

Nadir backed a call by leader of the Alliance For Guyana (AFG), Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine, to pardon those sentenced to prison within the last three years for possessing small quantities of `ganja.' (MICHELLE ELPHAGE)