Jamming the Poor, Still
By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 13, 2019
In 1981, after teaching in the United States for about ten years, I decided to return home for good. To do so I had to erect a personal library so I could do my work. Without my library I would be lost, so I asked my first cousin—one of those cousins who possesses the skills to do everything—to build a library at the back of my mother's house.
Dutifully, he began his task. One day while he was working, he dropped his tools and called his friend Ashook, our neighbor, to join him on the block to share a joint. I suspect they wanted to relax themselves. The police came out of nowhere, arrested them and took them to the Arouca Police Station for smoking ganja.
I went to the station to get them bail. However, when Ashook returned home, his father was mad. He complained bitterly: "Bai, I tell yo to smoke in de house, not in de road." This made perfect sense. It was in keeping with an ethos he had known since his parents came to this land from India.
An Express headline on Friday reminded me of that incident. It read: "Son fined $3,250 for Ganja." The story opened: "Two shriveled marijuana plants and 4.1 grammes of marijuana were brought to court yesterday as evidence in the case against Kevin Ragbir, whose home was raided by police officers on Wednesday...
"Police prosecutor Cleyon Seedan told the court that at 7:10 a.m. on Wednesday, officers went to Ragbir's home where they met him, identified themselves and read out to him a warrant to search for illegal firearms and ammunition.
"Seedan said Ragbir was asked if he had anything illegal and he admitted: 'I have a lil smoke in my room and two buckets with weed tree outside.
"They found the marijuana inside a wooden cabinet in his room and the plants in the buckets by bougainvillea trees.
"Regan told the police, 'Officer is mine, leave meh family.'"
Seeing that water was more than flour, Ragbir pleaded guilty and paid the court a considerable portion of his earnings for the possession and growing of ganja.
What interests me here is that a law that was passed in 1885, particularly against East Indians, is still being used to harass and oppress poor people.
On August 28, 1884 Governor Arthur Havelock wrote to Lord Stanley, the secretary of state, as follows: "The effects of the use of Ganja, to which reference is made in paragraph 8 of your dispatch, have been frequently brought to my notice. I have made exhaustive inquiry into the subject. A large mass of evidence has been brought forward showing conclusively that the statements that have been made by medical officers, minister of religion and others, of the injurious effects arising out of the habit of smoking ganja, are by no means exaggerated. It appears that not only is the Indian population becoming from day to day, more addictive to this habit, but that the Creoles are also falling victims to it."
In March 1885 the governor informed the secretary of state: "An Ordinance to impose a license duty in respect of the cultivation of Ganja was passed on the 22nd of February and assented to by me on the 28th of February." He added: "It was deemed equitable to allow those persons, who are principally people of small means, who had incurred expenses in cultivating the plant, sufficient time to reap their crops, and the 1st of January 1886 has therefore been fixed for the commencement of the ordinance."
The ordinance say: (1) "It is intended as a repressive measure to the use of Ganja; (2) Ganja among an East Indian population is the cause of many of the crimes committed by them; and (3) Rum and other things of a similar nature existing long before the introduction of Indian Immigration have remained sufficiently abundant for all intoxicating purposes, and the culture of the cannabis sativa in Trinidad [should not] be looked upon as anything very desirable."
When Lester Chariah, defense lawyer, told the court that Ragbir was a gardener who sold produce at the Debe market and that the marijuana may have "grown accidentally" in his home, the magistrate asked "if the birds had brought them." Chanriah pleaded: "Ragbir never intended to convert the marijuana into an economic enterprise."
While I cannot judge the fairness of what transpired in that court, it is clear that a piece of legislation that was introduced into our legal system to criminalize the poor, especially, the Indians, is still being used to do so. What members of the dominant society see as harmful, many people in disadvantaged communities consider those things as harmless and recreational. However, the poor are still being penalized for using a plant that was made to promote the use of "rum and other things of a similar [intoxicating] nature" which was part of the allowance or pay that the enslaved Africans received for their labor.
Interestingly, Maxwell Phillip, the acting attorney general who brought forward the legislation, was a black man. Today, both black men and Indian men are still suffering from the effects of this disastrous piece of class legislation.
When Ashook's father reminded him he should smoke in the house rather than in the road, he was drawing on the accumulated wisdom his people had gathered over one hundred years of persecution. Today one cannot even smoke within the province of one's home.
Talk about progress.
Professor Cudjoe's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.
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The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe