Time for a re-think? Lawyers say drugs laws are ripe for debate. *Creative Commons photo by miss.libertine
Time for a re-think? Lawyers say drugs laws are ripe for debate. *Creative Commons photo by miss.libertine
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WEDNESDAY, MAY 2: A Harvard lecturer busted for drugs in Bermuda has made international headlines.

And yesterday, criminal lawyer Charles Richardson said the time had come to decriminalize small amounts of soft drugs altogether.

Another lawyer, Mark Pettingill, said the court case highlighted the need for an open and frank debate on the island’s approach to soft drugs.

The case involving Mey Akashah, an instructor in environmental health at the prestigious Boston university, has generated headlines in the US and Caribbean The story has featured in the Boston Herald and on CBS and Fox News, as well as in Caribbean newspapers like Jamaica’s Gleaner and even the university’s own paper, the Harvard Crimson.

Akashah was caught at the airport with six grammes of cannabis in a ziplock bag hidden in her underwear.

On Monday, Akashah, of Boston’s Beacon Street, admitted the offence in Magistrate’s Court.

Magistrate Archibald Warner gave Akashah a conditional discharge — which means a conviction is not recorded — and she walked free from court.

Earlier, prosecutor Maria Sofianos said the maximum penalty for the offence was ten years in jail and/or a $500,000 fine.

Mr Pettingill said the same magistrate sentenced a woman client of his from California, who was caught at the airport with prescription cannabis, to a month in jail and a $3000 fine last year.

He added Akashah “knew better and deliberately tried to lie about it. The woman I defended, the drugs were at the top of her bag.”

Mr Pettingill said: “I was surprised when I saw reports of the case — I think we need to have a debate on the decriminalizing of marijuana and it needs to be an honest debate.”

Mr Pettingill’s client, Edith Wolffe, 56, who had 35 grammes of the drug, had her sentence reduced to time served — around three days – after he argued a successful appeal.

Mr Richardson said: “I do think small amounts of cannabis should be decriminalized. The amount of money we spend pursuing convictions for small amounts of cannabis is horrifying.”

He added: “I personally don’t think the sentence in this case is unusual — I can think of a dozen cases I have dealt with which have been dealt with similarly — these are local people, black people.

“I don’t know why people are automatically saying young black Bermudian men would be treated differently — that’s not my experience. It’s just that this case has attracted a lot of publicity.”

Mr Richardson added that, in Bermuda, less than 20 grammes of cannabis was deemed to be for personal use — any more than that would attract intent to supply charges.

Akashah, who was visiting the island for a weekend break with her husband, was arrested at the airport on Friday after sniffer dogs singled her out.

Medical

She argued in court that she used cannabis for medical reasons and had been prescribed it by her doctor in Boston, where the drug is legal for medical use.

Akashah, who told the court she splits her time between Boston and California, said her California doctor had a certificate to prove medical use, but she was unable to produce it in court.

Mr Pettingill said: “Many people in Bermuda think having a drug which is illegal but which is so prolifically used in our community, all we’re doing is driving it underground and creating a criminal element.

“This is a debate which we need to have – although I am not advocating one position or another.

“There is a claim that this is a $100 million industry in this country — that’s a lot of people and a lot of weed.”

Mr Pettingill added: “What we have at the moment is a discretionary position — and the Crown may well appeal this latest case to seek clarity on the law. Discretion is wide. The whole picture needs to be looked at.”

Mr Pettingill said that another argument that had been made is for the legal cultivation of marijuana for personal use — a stance adopted in California, where a 25 square foot rule is in force.

Mr Richardson added that the Criminal Code spelled out where conditional discharges could be considered — with a likely disproportionate effect on work or study, a lack of previous convictions and whether the public interest would be served by a conviction all taken into account.

“Courts weigh whether the consequences of a criminal conviction would outweigh the gravity of a crime.”

“Similar people from Bermuda, with no criminal record and an academic record, would get a conditional discharge.”

A spokeswoman for Harvard University yesterday refused to say if Akashah would face disciplinary proceedings.

She added that her six-month contract was due to run out at the end of the month.

Akashah could not be reached for comment.