Drug court MoU under review; Decriminalization Committee for "small quantities of marijuana" also finalizing its report

Sentencing someone to jail for stealing a phone to satisfy his or her drug addiction does not solve the problem, unless that person is rehabilitated while incarcerated to cure his or her addiction. Chief Magistrate Ann Marie Smith told us that it is with this in mind that members of the judiciary have been meeting with community activists to set up a drug court, which, she said, will handle crimes driven by drug addiction.

The steering committee, which is chaired by Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin, is due to meet this Wednesday. Benjamin, Smith and mental health expert Jenny Lovell traveled recently to Vancouver, Canada, to attend an intensive training, and they will be reporting back to the committee when they meet in a few days.

Meanwhile, officials of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Government of Belize are reviewing a draft memorandum of understanding for the establishment of the drug court.

Chief Magistrate Smith told us that there is a list of offenses which would be handled by the drug court, and a list of those which would continue to be heard in the mainstream courts. She said that the intent is to treat drug addiction as an illness, so that persons guilty of certain offenses would be committed to rehab rather than to prison.

The steering committee includes representatives from Jacob's Farm Rehab Center and REMAR, which both have programs to help people overcome addiction, as well as representatives from the National Drug Abuse Control Council (NDACC), the UBAD Educational Foundation (UEF), the courts and the Attorney General's Ministry.

Doug Singh, chair of the Decriminalization Committee, which has been commissioned to advise the Government of Belize on the decriminalization of small quantities of marijuana, also sits on the steering committee for the drug court.

Singh told us today that the committee has been working on finalizing its report, which will be attached to a Cabinet paper, with recommendations to the Government on the way forward.

Amandala understands that there are early indications that most groups consulted on the issue are in favor of some level of decriminalization, although we have been informed that the Decriminalization Committee did receive several written petitions from individuals who said that they are against the proposal.

Chief Magistrate Smith said that while the space is already available for the drug court and there are committed magistrates, they are now working on getting together a cadre of professionals to provide the service. These would also include prosecution staff, probation officers and police.

Belize would be the fourth Caribbean country to have such a court, said Esner Vellos, director of NDACC. Similar courts exist in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados.

Barbados announced in February that it had opened the country's first drug treatment court, and officials also announced plans for a separate court for domestic violence cases.