Cannabis law reform in Jamaica could bring economic prosperity, argue advocates

In recent weeks the debate on the legal status of cannabis in Jamaica has been opened up, with calls for serious consideration of reform. The current system prohibits the cultivation and use of the drug, although since the creation Drug Courts in 1999 first-time possession offences do not result in a criminal record.

There are two types of reform being independently advocated: the creation of a regulated market; and the permitting of research into, and administering of, medical marijuana. At the end of this month the International Cannabis Conference will take place in the capital, Kingston, which will bring together experts assessing the medicinal, commercial, legal and religious issues attached to the debate.

The organisers of the conference, the members of the Ganja Law Reform Coalition (GLRC), are the primary proponents of the regulation model. Their maxim reads “Tax. Educate. Control. Regulate” and this is precisely what they propose: a controlled market for the drug, regulated by the government - similar to the situation with tobacco and alcohol. The group also seeks education aimed at demand-reduction - it does not endorse the use of cannabis, but wishes for possession of a small amount by an adult to be “decriminalised”. Its stance appears to be primarily grounded in the defence of human rights, as well as the sacramental nature of the drug for many Jamaicans.

Previous discussion on the issue has centred on the smoking of cannabis, but recently there has been a shift in focus to its medical and economic potential. Advocates of the alternative reform include prominent Jamaican scientist Dr Henry Lowe, who wishes to open the way for medical marijuana research in the country. Because it can be used to treat global illnesses such as schizophrenia, glaucoma and diabetes, he believes there is great opportunity for health tourism, whereby sufferers will visit to receive the treatment they need but cannot get in their home country. Dr Lowe looks to countries like Uruguay and the US, where the legal use of cannabis has been introduced, and wants Jamaicans to enjoy the same economic benefits rather than be left behind.

It has been suggested that international pressure, primarily from the United States, may account for the currently more conservative approach of the Jamaican government, and executive director of the New-York based Drug Policy Alliance, Ethan Nadelmann, believes that “off the record” many local politicians would probably be in favour of decriminalisation. However the recent relaxation in cannabis policy in the US – despite prohibition remaining on a federal level – means such pressure is likely to ease. Furthermore, two Jamaican parliamentarians have already lent their support: MP Raymon Pryce via resolution and Lester Henry on the political platform.

Support for the two models of reform may be rationalised from different angles, but ultimately they share one justification: economic prosperity for Jamaica. Both can bring in substantial sums for the government – California alone takes $100 million in tax revenue annually from medical marijuana, and undoubtedly significantly more would be generated in a fully regulated market. Moreover reform has the potential to boost tourism, as the case of Amsterdam demonstrates, where visitors account for up to 90% of income for coffee shop owners.

Whichever route is to be taken, the conditions are ripe for a change in a time with growing acceptance of cannabis internationally, and now appears to be the right time for Jamaica to move forwards, if its government so wishes.