Over-regulation of Jamaica’s cannabis industry is deterring farmers from entering the legal market, and impeding development – indicating why drug policies must be tailored to a country’s socioeconomic needs.
The vast rules and pricy prerequisites for entering Jamaica’s legal cannabis market are deterring farmers from seeking cultivation licenses. In addition to these regulations, “there is little knowledge, understanding or engagement with the new scheme by farmers”, according to author Simon Jones, who has published two pieces on the Jamaican cannabis industry for the International Journal of Drug Policy.
In 2015, the Jamaican House of Representatives passed amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act that approved the creation of a legal and regulated industry for cannabis, colloquially referred to as ganja.
The Dangerous Drugs Amendment Act 2015 (DDAA) decriminalised the personal possession of two ounces of cannabis – meaning it is not longer an offence for which an adult may be prosecuted, although one may be issued with a fine, "similar to a traffic ticket", of J$500 (~$4 USD).
Among its other stipulations, the DDAA authorises a household to "legally grow … five ganja plants", and for the "smoking of ganja … [to] be legally permitted in places that are licensed for medical or therapeutic purposes".
"Adherents of the Rastafarian faith will also be permitted to smoke ganja for sacramental purposes in locations registered as places of Rastafarian worship," the legislation notes.
Importantly, the DDAA also authorises "any person or organisation … [to cultivate and sell] ganja for medical, therapeutic or scientific purposes", if approved to do so by the newly-created Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA).
This has allowed for the quasi-commercialisation of cannabis throughout Jamaica, as long as it is produced and sold with the intention of being “for therapeutic purposes” – a term which the legislation does not define.
Despite the change in law, convincing farmers to actually register with the CLA is proving complicated for the state for various reasons.
Cultivation licenses, which are available on the CLA website, are expensive to purchase; the cheapest cultivator license costs $2,000 (USD) per year. This is a particularly steep price in a country where the average annual income is less than $9,000, and likely even less for most agricultural workers.
Additionally, the variety of strict regulations – including the mandatory installation of CCTV surveillance and secure storage areas, and the individual tagging of each plant – involve further investments of time and money that many farmers simply do not have.
While discouraging farmers to apply for CLA licenses, these costs and regulations also drive prices up for the consumers, who thus have less incentive to buy legally.
While the implementation of a similar highly-regulated cannabis industry was successful in the US state of Colorado, where almost $200million was raised in tax revenue from cannabis sales in 2016, the approach does not take into account the nuances of Jamaica’s socioeconomic situation.
Jamaica continues to suffer from a high level of poverty in rural areas – in which over 40 per cent of the population lives – and a lack of industrial infrastructure. The encumbering nature of the CLA’s regulations makes it impractical for farmers to switch from illegal to legal cultivation.
This localisation oversight is proving detrimental to the establishment of an industry that could efficiently contribute to the national economy and provide legitimate employment for Jamaican people.
In a 2016 opinion piece, the then-chair of the CLA, Dr. André Gordon highlighted the need for the fledgling cannabis industry to provide economic benefit to poor rural farmers.
Gordon claimed that rural communities would be the primary area for cannabis production and sale, enticing tourists to visit areas that need more investment.
Farmers that switched from illicit cultivation to legal farming would earn “at least five to 10 times more”, he insisted, adding that “entire communities [will] develop community-based tourism experiences”.
Unfortunately for many of Jamaica’s poor rural farmers, the reality has not lived up to Dr. Gordon’s words.
Jamaica’s cannabis industry remains in its infancy, and it seems unlikely to flourish until the government reconsiders the costs and regulations for entering the legal market, and modifies them to meet public needs.