Sen. Nelson proposes bill to decriminalize marijuana
Published: October 25, 2013
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ST. CROIX - Some 30 to 40 people who gathered for a town hall meeting at Educational Complex on Thursday night either expressed support for Sen. Terrence Nelson's bill to lower penalties for crimes involving marijuana or pushed for outright legalization of the drug.
Nelson made it clear that legalization of marijuana is his ultimate goal and that he views the current bill as a step in that direction.
He hopes to see marijuana legalized in the territory "in the very near future," he said.
"If we don't move soon, we will miss that rising economic wave as it relates to the policy, the legalization of marijuana, ganja, weed," Nelson said. "We need not be afraid of saying these words. We just need to understand that, take it away from that street mentality. Let's take it to the corporate mentality."
The legislation, which is scheduled to be discussed today during a Senate Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety Committee meeting, would decriminalize the possession of small amounts - up to two ounces - of marijuana, providing for a civil penalty of a $100 fine instead. The citation would be similar to a traffic citation.
The bill also would lower penalties across the board for possessing, selling, distributing and growing marijuana, based on the amount of marijuana involved. In most cases, it would be a misdemeanor.
It also removes marijuana crimes from the class of drug crimes that require mandatory revocation of the perpetrator's drivers licenses and deletes sections of V.I. Code that prohibit marijuana and hashish trafficking and outline the penalties for doing so.
Nelson offered a variety of reasons why he feels the bill is necessary, including that he thinks "a lot of people's lives are being destroyed" because the possession of a small amount of marijuana at this point remains a crime.
He also said that there is evidence that in the United States, the existing drug laws are unevenly applied based on race. The whereas clauses in the 8-page bill note studies showing that even though black and white Americans use marijuana at about the same rate, blacks are more likely to be arrested and go to jail for it than whites.
Nelson also said he believes law enforcement resources could be better used elsewhere.
Joanne Naughton of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition also spoke, saying that she doesn't think the nation's War on Drugs is working and explaining that she thinks prohibition of all drugs needs to end. Then the small audience scattered through the Complex auditorium was allowed to speak up.
Eurman Fahie applauded the bill as a first step and said that he thinks there should be no fine for possession of a small amount of marijuana.
"If you got two ounce or less, you should be able to walk the street - I don't smoke - but you should be able to walk the street and smoke it free," he said, adding that it's legal to walk the street drinking rum or smoking cigarettes.
Ariela Hayes raised questions about some ambiguities she sees in the legislation, and said she supports the full legalization of marijuana. She encouraged Nelson to take bigger steps, and said if he wants marijuana legalized, he should try to get that put into law.
"We need to run towards this," she said.
Wayne Petersen said that in Jamaica, some tours of marijuana-growing operations are being tolerated, and he raised the question of whether that potential tourist market could exist here.
Former senator Holland Redfield said he supports Nelson's bill, noting that once people get a felony on their record, "it's all over. There's no way they can pull themselves out."
Redfield also pointed out that legalizing marijuana could stimulate the economy.
Khaleeb Sealey told Nelson that the Rastafarians in the territory need laws enacted to protect their religion.
David Clarke, who said he doesn't smoke marijuana, said he does support its legalization - and suggested that marijuana could be a new cash crop for St. Croix, and something it could export. He also suggested it could provide for a new tourist experience.
"What are you waiting on?" he said. "We are broke."
At the committee hearing today, law enforcement officials and others will weigh in on the bill.