Opinion August 12, 2016 | 12:21 pm

It is time for a new CARICOM policy on marijuana

At the end of July eleven individuals received jailsentences in Havana of between 15 to 30 years for attempting to trafficnarcotics into Cuba from Jamaica. The convictions followed a number ofco-ordinated operations to stop go-fast boats arriving with large quantities ofmarijuana. The intention had been to sell the ganja in the Cuban capital.

Criminal intent apart, the long sentences reflect Cuba’sconcern about the moral, public health, and societal impact that the use orsale of narcotics could have on Cuban society; an approach that has resulted inzero tolerance towards even the possession of small quantities of marijuana forpersonal use, and severe sentences for citizens and visitors alike.

It is a policy quite unlike that of Jamaica which inrecognition of its own reality has decriminalised possession, allowing a personto carry up to two ounces of ganja and to grow up to five plants wherepermitted. It has also established a Cannabis Licensing Authority to regulate amedicinal marijuana industry which it sees as offering significant economicgains, employment, and a new source of government revenue.

What these contrasting but equally valid positionsillustrate is the complexity of trying to harmonise an approach to marijuana,not just in the Caribbean region, but across the whole of the Americas.

While parts of the United States, Canada, Uruguay, Colombiaand Jamaica have either established or are intending creating legislationlegalising and controlling the limited use of marijuana, many other nationslike Cuba remain strongly opposed to the legislative and moral downgradingimplied.

This divide was clearly demonstrated earlier this year whenin April the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs ended without anysignificant change to the existing conventions, despite strong representationsfor reform from Latin American and CARICOM countries seeking a lessprohibitionist global regime.

The meeting revealed deep disagreements over internationaldrug policy between what the UN describes as countries that favoured moving toa humane approach by dealing with drug use primarily as a public health issue,versus those nations favouring a strict law and order response to all narcoticsissues.

At the UN session, CARICOM nations proposed that the UNreview the classification of ganja. Jamaica’s Minister of Foreign Affairs,Kamina Johnson-Smith, argued against a one size fits all approach, observingthat all countries should be allowed the flexibility to craft appropriate lawsand policies while continuing to undertake their obligations under the UN DrugControl Conventions. All nations, she suggested, should be able to take intoaccount important national elements, such as different cultural perspectivesand practices, noting that in Jamaica’s case marijuana’s use as a folk medicineor as a religious sacrament were not associated with illicit, large-scalecultivation for trade.

“We contend that the classification of cannabis under theSingle Convention is an anomaly and that the medical value of a substance mustbe determined by science and evidence-based analysis, above otherconsiderations,” Ms Johnson-Smith said, reportedly to some applause.

The meeting ended however without any such change beingagreed, despite the fact that in the Americas the marijuana industry is rapidlyand observably becoming a mainstream activity leaving the Caribbean behind.

In particular the sale and taxation of marijuana has becomebig business in many parts of the United States as well as a significant sourcerevenue for the states involved.

Its cultivation is now legal in Colorado, Oregon andAlaska, as it its sale with a state issued license. Possession has beendecriminalised in 18 US states; and it is legal medicinally in 25. In 2015 inColorado alone, licensed and regulated stores sold US$996m worth of medical andrecreational marijuana earning in the process tax revenues for social spendingof more than US$135m.

As Jamaica’s Finance Minister Audley Shaw recently pointedout, the legal marijuana market in the US is predicted to rise from US$6.7billion this year to US$21.8 billion by 2020 and that some countries like theNetherlands have begun to export medical marijuana to countries like Canada,Italy, Germany and the Czech Republic.

If as is also expected, the Canadian government introduceslegislation next year to make the sale of marijuana legal it will make thecountry one of the largest in the west to allow its widespread use.

All of which begs the question as to why the region as awhole is not moving more quickly to reach a conclusion about decriminalisingthe possession of small quantities of ganja for personal use and developingmarijuana as a legal medically-oriented cash crop in a carefully controlledmanner that supports economic growth and social spending.

In 2014 CARICOM set up a Regional Commission on Marijuanato examine the social, economic, health and legal issues surrounding its use inthe Caribbean and to determine whether there should be a change in the currentclassification of marijuana as a dangerous drug. Despite this, continuingdivisions over the issue within CARICOM and delays to convening nationalmeetings suggest that a final report may be some way off and possibly absentfrom the agenda of Caribbean Heads of Government for a considerable while yet.

In a sign of growing impatience, a number of seniorCaribbean figures have begun to speak out about the need for a change ofregional policy on marijuana for both economic and humane reasons.

St Vincent’s Prime Minister, Ralph Gonsalves, has beenparticularly forthright, stressing the importance of decriminalising marijuanain a careful, structured and controlled way, using it as a tool for theeconomic diversification of the region. He has also noted that the window issmall before international corporations in the US begin to grow marijuana on alarge scale as a medical export crop. In addition, the Caribbean Court ofJustice has noted that the lives of thousands of Caribbean young peoplecontinue to be blighted by incarceration for being in possession of smallquantities of marijuana, and for this reason has said that it is important thematter be addressed quickly.

Major decisions require time, careful consideration, wisdomand judgement. Unfortunately, as each day passes benefits accrue to the US,while the region and individuals are increasingly disadvantaged. It is time fora regional policy that accepts limited possession and a regional medicalmarijuana industry.

David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council andcan be contacted at david.jessop@caribbean-council.org

Previous columns be found at www.caribbean-council.org

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