In this column last week, I began a discussion on what is referred to as the “Blue Economy”, following the conclusion of a major international conference on the issue held in Nairobi, Kenya. That discussion is a vital one for small island-nations like ours with far more marine territory than land, and I had indicated that it would be continued this week.
However, events in the world are changing ever more rapidly and this week we had the ongoing saga of the United Kingdom and its Brexit mess, a situation which we cannot ignore given the nature of our economic, political and other relations with both Britain and the European Union. We need to follow those developments so as to strategize in order to secure our interests.
But even more gripping was the Parliamentary debate and passage of two pieces of legislation on the establishment of a medicinal cannabis industry in St Vincent and the Grenadines and legal amnesty for persons who have been cultivating marijuana, a still illegal practice here. Given the current relevance of this issue, I have decided to leave the follow-up on the Blue Economy for next week and instead to make a few comments on the ganja debate.
First, I must make reference to a comment in the Editorial of the SEARCHLIGHT of Nov.23 as follows:
“It has been a long time since any proposed piece of legislation has generated as much interest and debate as that currently raging over three pieces of proposed legislation – the Medicinal Cannabis Industry Bill, the Cannabis Cultivation and the permitted Use of Cannabis for Religious Purpose Bill. Not since the debate and discussion over constitutional reform (2005-2009) have we witnessed such wide participation in discussing a bill before parliament. This augurs well for public discourse but it also reveals the extent to which the topic and the marijuana issue in general is rooted in our society.”
Events over the past week have borne out the accuracy of those comments. Not only were our Parliamentarians visibly more engaged than on a lot of other matters before the House but even outside Parliament, we had the spectacle of pickets and counter pickets, in support or opposition, mainly by persons identified with the Rastafarian community. While it is regrettable to note the extent to which this difference of opinion degenerated almost in hostility, the Rastafarian community must be complimented for their active participation and the vocal airing of their views on the subject. It would be good if other interest groups would take such an active part in matters affecting their interests.
It must be said that from the time that this matter was first aired, there was an almost naive approach by many Vincentians on the matter. Sadly, the issue of MONEY seemed to overshadow all else, with the much-vaunted claim of how many billions were there to be earned taking centre stage. This led to the inevitable focus on who was to earn this money, were “traditional” ganja farmers to be squeezed out and all the profit go to “big men”? Side by side with this, in a country where investment and investors have largely been regarded as relating to foreigners, there was the issue of national interests as against foreign ones.
Further, many of the most vocal persons appear either to have not read the Bills properly or were distorting for their own purposes. Yet there were, and are genuine concerns which need to be addressed and some of these emerged in the debate. What is regrettable is that although both sides of the House were in support of a medicinal cannabis industry, partisan political interests kept surfacing even before the debate.
The popularity and widespread use of marijuana in our society has tended to box our politicians into a situation that it seems vote-catching to go with the flow. Marijuana farmers are now referred to as “traditional” farmers. So what do we call our thousands of truly traditional farmers who have kept this country alive, fed us and earned foreign exchange to fund our economic development all these years?
Secondly we must not be led into thinking that the establishment of a medicinal cannabis industry will be a simple undertaking, that SVG is guaranteed success in the matter. Like everything else, there is competition, there is the matter of proper organisation, there are international rules and regulation, trade obstacles, we could go on and on. Our experience in bananas recently, sugar and cotton before that must be borne in mind.
Above all, it is necessary to obtain and maintain a national consensus on the matter beginning with Parliament. Many sensitive social and even health issues are involved. We must all be prepared to listen to the views of others, to take them into consideration and to compromise where it is in the national interests.
Finally, my congratulations to Agriculture Minister Saboto Caesar, Dr Jerrol Thompson and the government of SVG the courage and hard work to bring this matter to Parliament. A lot more hard work lies ahead.
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.