Dealing with drugs seriously
Reporting from Jamaica, Trinidad and London
“Jamaica’s ganja tours draw the tourists,” says a headline in Britain’s Guardian newspaper in September 2013.
“Jamaica’s marijuana tours draw travellers,” states the Telegraph, adding that “farmers in Jamaica are seeking to cash in with tours of the island’s cannabis plantations”.
While some US states have moved towards changes in legislation on medical marijuana and Uruguay has actually changed its laws to move into the marijuana business, Caribbean approaches to the debate get full global media treatment.
When Britain’s Guardian reported on an unofficial ganja plantation tour, it referred to Jamaica’s “marijuana mystique”.
In fact, the Caribbean and ganja were linked in the global public imagination decades before the medical marijuana brigade started to make their mark in North and South America.
Maybe it’s down to the region’s most famous pot smoker, Bob Marley. Or perhaps it’s because many can boast of having sourced the weed in the Caribbean, where it is still illegal.
Let’s get serious
So it’s no surprise that the great and good of the Caribbean want a measured approach to the issue in less moral and more business-like terms.
Uruguay has moved quietly towards legalising a regulated market in marijuana, which is expected to see final Senate sign-off in October.
A number of states in the US moved a bit more noisily into legalising the availability of marijuana for medicinal use.
However, somehow when the debate begins afresh in the Caribbean – with its history as a trans-shipment location and the high-profile Rastafarian stance on ganja – the world looks on differently.
For many, it is now time for the Caribbean to defy the stereotype of the “yeah mon” spliff user and get down to a serious debate on marijuana.
A growing number of health professionals, lawyers and now even prime ministers think so - and the Caribbean ganja debate has grown up.
The reigniting of the debate on a professional level began a few months ago in Jamaica.
The country, which seems to have earned the unofficial title of “Ganja Capital of the World,” has been known to host “underground” tours of marijuana plantations, allowing tourists to visit hidden places where the plant is grown.
That’s despite the fact that being found in possession of the drug still carries a prison sentence in Jamaica.
The many calls for the substance to be legalised in Jamaica, or at the very least decriminalised, have gained traction with the developments in the United States.
In Jamaica, the debate centres on the possible economic benefits to be derived from legalisation, with sales from exports and medical marijuana usage helping to boost Jamaica’s struggling economy.
In the University of the West Indies (UWI) department of economics, Prof Claremont Kirton supports that argument.
“I think it’s a product which is showing tremendous economic potential in the context of its by-products in North America and the research work is showing that it has... medicinal pharmaceutical potential,” Prof Kirton told Caribbean Intelligence©.
Dr Manley West, head of UWI’s pharmacology department at Jamaica’s Mona campus, along with ophthalmologist Dr Albert Lockhart, carried out extensive research on cannabis in the 1970s and the late 1980s.
They helped to develop Canasol, a marijuana-based eye drop used in the treatment of glaucoma.
They also helped in the development of a combination drug known as Cantimol – a spin-off of Canasol, used for similar purposes.
Medically, cannabis is also known to be useful in treating the effects of nausea, asthma, multiple sclerosis and HIV.
“The basic approach must be to review the policy implication for its more productive use across the region. It could be an important industry in terms of export earnings and export potential,” Prof Kirton told Caribbean Intelligence©.
Another expert in the field, Carol Lindsay, is the co-ordinator for basic forensic toxicology at UWI's Faculty of Medical Sciences, which offers a Master’s degree in forensic toxicology.
Ms Lindsay told Caribbean Intelligence© that many of her students in the course of doctoral studies had completed projects on cannabis, collecting samples and conducting studies on the substance.
“We’re totally unbiased. We’re just taking the plant and pulling it apart technically, trying to establish a chemical profile on marijuana across the island,” Ms Lindsay said.
“Initially, we just want to establish its profile.”
The group is expected to study the fatty acid component of the substance by the end of the year, as well as the possibility of any therapeutic value in its aroma.
Ms Lindsay admits that she is against smoking in general, but believes that there are other ways to produce useful extracts from the plant.
“It may have some amount of value in the flavour industry or the cosmetic industry,” she added.
The main argument against legalising marijuana has been its alleged ill-effect on mental health.
According to a paper written by Andrew Johns and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2001, “the untoward mental effects of cannabis may be classified [as] psychological responses such as panic, anxiety, depression or psychosis. These effects may be described as 'toxic' in that they generally relate to excess consumption of the drug.”
Ms Lindsay is also wary of the psychoactive components of cannabis: “The cannabinoid is good and bad - helpful and harmful.
“If we can come up with a culture of marijuana that has less of the psychoactive component and more of the therapeutic component, maybe we can come up with a better variety, one that is so-called beneficial, then we would zero in on that plant.”
It was against this scientific backdrop that the politicians and legal experts entered the debate in September.
The Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, was the first leader to put the debate on the agenda of Caribbean Community (Caricom) leaders.
“I think it is high time that Caricom address regionally this matter in a sensible, focused, non-hysterical manner,” he said in a letter on 2 September to the current Caricom chair, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago.
Mrs Persad-Bissessar’s response has, in turn, been cautious.
She said at a news conference, given jointly with Dr Gonsalves and Barbadian leader Freundel Stuart, that “preliminary discussions” had been held on the use of marijuana for medical and health purposes.
She said that Caricom’s secretariat had been “tasked” to do some research on medical use and legislative issues around marijuana.
The Trinidadian leader, however, made it clear that, meanwhile, the law remains on the books.
Meanwhile in Jamaica, without a bill drafted or a vote scheduled, parliamentarians held a debate on 24 September on a motion to decriminalise the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use by adults, introduced by a governing party MP, Raymond Pryce.
Some MPs argued that the number of arrests of those with small amounts of ganja was helping to create a growing pool of people on the island with criminal records and a lifelong stigma.
The debate was not law-changing, but has flagged the growing high-profile nature of the "legalise marijuana" discussion in the region.
What the lawyers think
Trinidad’s Chief Justice, Ivor Archie, also entered the debate at the September opening of the country’s law term.
Speaking as a former prosecutor involved in drug prosecutions and asset confiscation for nine years, Chief Justice Archie said: “I have come to the view that drug trafficking and drug consumption should be treated differently.”
He told the Supreme Court at the law term opening that he was concerned that minor marijuana consumption cases were contributing to the backlog of cases in the magistrates’ courts.
He added that he was concerned that criminal prosecution of these minor infringements could be making young offenders into hardened criminals.
“In an economy where the state is the major employer and a criminal conviction is a bar to employment, we may be pushing minor non-violent offenders into criminality when they can be saved.”
He added: “Marijuana probably wreaks no more havoc than alcohol addiction, but we provide support for one and punishment for the other.”
“The burden on the police and prisons and the courts in terms of cost and human resource will be lessened if we focus on the scourge of trafficking,” Chief Justice Archie said.
He was careful to signal that the courts were not about to issue unilateral pardons to drug offenders: “As long as we have laws on the books, we have to enforce them.”
However, at the same time, he advocated “a long hard look at policy in this area”.
The debate heats up
Predictably, the reaction in Trinidad and Tobago to the statement by the Chief Justice has been swift and diverse.
While Caricom leaders buy time with the Caricom Secretariat research, anybody who is anybody has entered the public debate.
Trinidad and Tobago’s Police Commissioner, Stephen Williams, set out the stance of the twin-island republic’s police force.
“The police service does not have a position on the issue. The Chief Justice is free to make whatever comments he likes, but until the law changes, the police service will do what it has to do in order to enforce the law,” Mr Williams said.
The statement of the Commissioner could be perceived as a warning to anyone who would believe that by raising the issue, the office of the Chief Justice could give authority to anyone who wants to break the law.
The regional media are also fully involved in the debate, both on the pronouncements and in their own editorials.
Under the headline of “The great ganja debate", the Trinidad Express newspaper praised the Chief Justice “for firmly placing the issue into the public domain for discussion”.
But the paper outlined public concern over existing negative cultural attitudes to marijuana.
“It will not be easy to dislodge the relationship of fear, stigma and anxiety that many law-abiding citizens have with the plant,” said the Trinidad Express.
The Trinidad Guardian newspaper cautioned against the indiscriminate decriminalisation of ganja, which could cause serious addiction and criminal problems.
“High time Caricom discuss legalising marijuana,” Dominica News Online said.
“Gonsalves ganja stance is a breath of fresh air,” Nevis Pages headlined.
“St Vincent PM bats for ganja,” the Jamaica Observer said.
“The #warondrugs doesn’t work and decriminalisation is the answer,” business tycoon Richard Branson, whose Virgin airline is a major player in the Caribbean’s tourism industry, said in a 25 September tweet.
His tweet referred to his appearance at the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which is looking at tackling drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal problem.
Britain’s establishment is also aware of the changing landscape in parts of the US, in South America and now the discussion in the Caribbean.
What decriminalisation means
Debate over the levels of decriminalisation is also running high.
Trinidadian Senior Counsel Dana Seetahal, also a former independent senator, said that decriminalisation of marijuana would mean that there would be no prison or the recording of a conviction for the consumption of small quantities of marijuana, especially for medicinal purposes.
However, possession and use of the herb in countries and states where decriminalisation has taken place can result in relatively small fines, drugs treatment and education of the individual.
“My firm view is that jail is no place for a first-time user or an addict,” said Ms Seetahal in a newspaper column.
“Possession of less than 10g of marijuana should be treated as an infraction rather than a criminal offence, leading to a criminal record, and repeated users should be allowed the treatment option,” said Ms Seetahal.
But she holds to the position, like many others in Trinidad, that “trafficking any illegal drug, including marijuana, however, should continue to be firmly prohibited.”
The users' experience
Back in Jamaica, where the debate has always been at its strongest, views are varied.
“A lot of persons who are in jail don’t need to be. If it is a situation where they ticket [them] and free them, and they pay a fine, then that’s fine,” Jamaican Leighton James, a non-smoker, told Caribbean Intelligence©.
Jamaican car salesman Andrew Jackson, 63, has never smoked even so much as a cigarette, but he has no objections about the use of medical marijuana.
“Whatever good it can do for mankind, mankind ought not to be denied that,” he said.
Jamaican University of Technology (UTech) student Marc Smith, 22, acknowledges that there are positive arguments in favour of marijuana usage, but remains firm in the belief that, from an ethical point of view, it should not be legalised.
"It can do a lot of damage. We have seen where persons have gotten insane from it, so from that point of view and from a Biblical aspect, I am thinking it should not be legalised at this time.
"That is something that can boost the economy, but it should not be legalised just the same," he said.
Jamaican Tourism and Entertainment Minister Damion Crawford, the son of a Rastafarian, said during the 24 September debate in parliament that too many Jamaicans faced a lifelong stigma that came with possession of a small amount of pot.
"For personal use, the punishment of a criminal record is too much," he told parliament.
Meanwhile, the business side of marijuana debate is being written by locals and visitors alike who manage to source illegal ganja in the Caribbean.
Back at the UK Guardian's Jamaican tour of the ganja tourist farms, the paper met a Minnesota student preparing a spliff as the interview got underway.
“I can get stronger stuff at home, but there’s something really special about smoking marijuana in Jamaica,” she said.
“This is the marijuana that inspired Bob Marley.”
[Reporting by Dania Bogle in Kingston, Tony Fraser in Port of Spain and Debbie Ransome in London.]