R. Rose
September 10, 2013

More calls for marijuana rethink

Marijuana poses a social challenge to our still largely conservative societies in the Caribbean. The debates over its use, treatment under the law and problems arising from the illegal status of the plant and consequent prosecution of offenders, continue to range on interminably. In addition, more and more enlightened minds, not just ganja smokers or Rastafari, as is mistakenly believed, have been calling for a fundamental rethink and new approaches to the use of marijuana.{{more}}

This writer has in the past raised the issue through this column. I have come to this conclusion on the basis of several factors, including the tremendous wastage of resources in enforcing marijuana laws, a variety of social factors, among them, the impact on our youth, the unnecessary conflict between police and public arising from ganja prosecution and often persecution, and even the impact that illegal cultivation is having on the environment. It is because marijuana cultivation is illegal that cultivators move deep into the hills, destroying forest cover in the process.

There are other considerations as well. The criminalisation of marijuana has an historical basis and research has shown that its illegal status is not simply based on perceived medical harm it allegedly causes. A lot of capitalist self-interest is involved, including the suspicion that the US ban on hemp in 1937 was related to the Mellon, Hearst and DuPont dynasties trying to protect their fortunes in timber/paper pulp and synthetic fibres. We may well live to see a reversal, again driven by the same self-interest, in clamping down on Caribbean production, only to boost the manufacture of by-products, patented of course, which we will import.

There are continuing differences of opinions, even among researchers, about the effects of marijuana use, mainly smoking. In societies like ours, where abuse of the substance has contributed to some problems of instability in young users, there is, quite naturally, some trepidation among parents about the move to decriminalize the use of the substance. These fears cannot be dismissed and must be handled with intelligent reasoning, provision of facts and mature, open debate. Very often the ganja bogey is such that many persons forget the damage that alcohol abuse continues to do to our society. Others simply confuse the use of marijuana with the destructive consumption of crack and cocaine. No wonder, official attitudes to them are virtually the same.

It is time for us to wake up to new realities. Given the pervasive presence of “Big Brother” to the north, and the so-called “war against drugs”, Caribbean governments are mortally afraid to even discuss the issue openly. Years ago, they were railroaded into the infamous Shiprider Agreement, under which the US had the right to apprehend suspected “drug” traffickers in Caribbean territory. US troops even led the way in destroying marijuana plants on Caribbean soil, St Vincent and the Grenadines especially, causing animosity among sections of the local population.

In the context of this, I had suggested in earlier articles, that, rather than an individual approach, CARICOM should, as a region jointly take up the challenge. There is now evidence of tremendous economic and medical benefits to be gained by enlightened handling of the marijuana issue.

Your humble servant is not alone. Just last week, Caribbean 360 news, reported that in Jamaica, a major producer of marijuana like our own SVG, members of the intelligentsia are calling for a revamp of thinking about marijuana. The Executive Director of the US-based Drug Policy Alliance, Ethan Nadelmann, has called on the Jamaican government to legalize and regulate marijuana, as Jamaica’s struggling economy could benefit by it. It is worth quoting him in part:

“If you legally regulate marijuana, first you stop wasting tens of millions of dollars per year on enforcing a policy, secondly you reduce the opportunities for police corruption, you begin to raise tax revenues from the domestic sale of cannabis and you can begin to recruit tourism on that basis”.

One can go further than just police corruption, for it is the continuing illegal status of marijuana which is contributing to money-laundering and, ominously, its use in transactions in illegal arms. Additionally, the medicinal qualities of marijuana open up another huge avenue. Another Jamaican, scientist Dr Henry Lowe, has weighed in on the debate.

Dr Lowe has urged a serious look at developing medical marijuana in Jamaica. Mr Nadelmann himself had raised this possibility, saying that ganja could become the “next big crop” in Jamaica, and, I dare say, SVG as well. He said that we are missing out on the billions of dollars which could be earned from cosmeceutical, neutraceutical and pharmaceutical products derived from marijuana. He called not only on Government, but the Opposition as well, to adopt this approach.

While we play “fraidy-fraidy” in the Caribbean, 20 US states have legalised the use of marijuana. In Massacheusetts, licensed users can get up to a 60-day supply of medical marijuana. In Connecticut, such users can get a month’s supply at a time; in Oregon 24 ounces and varying degrees in California, New Jersey and the other consenting states. In the Netherlands, there are public “coffee-houses” where persons over the age of 18 can purchase and smoke marijuana legally.

Can we at least have a frank and open conversation along those lines, or are we to wait until we have missed the boat, as we are in danger of doing?

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social com- mentator.