JUDGES IN RASTA DRUGS STORM; New Guidelines Signal a Two-Tier System over Cannabis

Daily Mail (London), September 29, 1999 | Go to article overview

JUDGES IN RASTA DRUGS STORM; New Guidelines Signal a Two-Tier System over Cannabis


Byline: STEVE DOUGHTY

JUDGES were given a signal yesterday to be lenient with cannabis users who say in court that they are Rastafarians.

They have been told that Rastafari-ans regard smoking cannabis as a 'sacrament' and that they should take religious practice into account in dealing with cases.

The instruction comes in race guidelines for judges, which even tell them to beware of using the word 'British'.

Judges should 'raise their level of knowledge' about ethnic minority religions, say the guidelines, which place Rastafarian-ism alongside the great world faiths.

It is strongly suggested that drug laws should be applied differently to those who claim to be adherents of an ethnic minority religion which approves of drug abuse.

The guidelines - issued on the day that Tony Blair condemned the evil of drugs in his Labour Party conference speech - will be sent to every judge in England and Wales by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine.

They tell judges that knowledge of minority beliefs 'can help judges understand why particular actions were taken or not taken' and that 'awareness of a person's religion is an integral element of being aware of equal treatment issues'.

The rules provoked a furore last night, with critics accusing Lord Irvine of encouraging judges to ignore the law which makes possession of cannabis illegal, and of bending the law in favour of one minority group. One MP called on

judges to ignore the instructions, drawn up by the Judicial Studies Board, the organisation which trains judges, with the backing of Lord Irvine and his officials.

The guidelines, contained in the Equal Treatment Bench Book, tell judges: 'Justice in a modern and diverse society must be "colour conscious", not "colour blind".' They also give judges a list of terms they should and should not use, with 'coloured' regarded as an offensive word, and 'West Indian' as an 'inappropriate' term.

They are told to be careful of the word 'British' and to avoid it unless they can show it is used in an 'inclusive' manner.

The rules refer repeatedly to Rastafarianism even though many view it as a movement, not a real religion. Its leaders claim no more than 10,000 followers in Britain.

Yet the Bench Book - endorsed yesterday by both the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham - states: 'Smoking cannabis or ganja ("the herb") is considered an important part of Rastafarian religious practice and is treated as a sacrament.

'Ganja is seen as natural and as God's gift and Rastafarians seek to legitimise its use by reference to biblical texts.' The Bench Book cites for judges Hebrews 6 verse 7: 'For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringing forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God.' Rastafarianism is banned in jails because it is regarded by the Prison Service as encouraging the use of cannabis and as a potential source of racial tension. Last night MP Julian Brazier, chairman of the Conservative Family Campaign, said: 'The law must be the law for everybody. Far from promoting satisfactory relations between people from different ethnic backgrounds, this will cause resentment.

'There will be a backlash if there seems to be an exemption for one group from the laws that apply to others.

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