2015 the Year of Ganja in Jamaica
Will 2016 be the year for Ganja internationally, as we move towards the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) 2016?
The issue of ganja played very prominently in Jamaica in 2015 with some advocates trumpeting the dawn of a “new green golden kingdom”, while some opponents predicting the doom of our youths to the “green demon”. However, a sober analysis of the situation will reveal that even though there were indeed some victories in relation to how we treat with ganja in Jamaica, there is still a lot more to achieve and pitfalls to be mindful of in relation to our policy on establishing a fully legally regulated ganja industry.
Ganja strides in 2015:
The beginning of 2015 saw the inaugural "International Cannabis Investors Conference" being held at the Jamaica Conference Centre from January 28 to 29. This saw a number of international cannabis (ganja) business enthusiasts’ descending on the Conference Centre to scope out potential for investing in Jamaica’s ganja industry even though they were not sure what was happening with the Draft Bill to amend the Dangerous Drugs Act, that would allow for ganja to be used for medical, therapeutic or scientific purposes.
Then in February the Houses of Parliament 2015 passed “an Act to Amend the Dangerous Drugs Act so as to provide for, among other things, the modification of penalties for the possession of ganja in specified circumstances, and for a scheme of licences, permits and other authorizations for medical, therapeutic or scientific purposes”.
In April, the “Ganja Law” as it is commonly referred to, was gazetted with the publishing of a list of recommendations on how the Amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act (DDA) would be effected in relation to the herb. What was important to note and to continually highlight here, is that the amended law didn’t legalize ganja, but instead decriminalized the possession of small quantities (2 ounces or less) and recognized the sacramental use of the plant by the Rastafarian community. The amendment also made way for the medicinal, therapeutic and scientific use of the plant, thereby recognizing a provision that was always available under the United Nations Conventions on Narcotic Drugs. In this same month on April 20, the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona was granted a Ministerial Order by the Minister of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining, under Section 7 (d) of the newly amended DDA to cultivate cannabis and engage independent growers of the plant for research purposes. This led to the historic signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the UWI (Mona) and the Ganja (Future) Growers and Producers Association on April 24.
The period also saw the Cabinet granting approval for a 16 member Cannabis Licensing Authority, with the mandate to regulate the planned hemp and medicinal ganja industry.
In early May the members of the Cannabis Licensing Authority were announced by the Minister of Information, along with the mandate to ensure that the Jamaica’s ganja regulations do not contravene our international obligations.
In addition to the announcement of the CLA, there was also a significant contribution made to the international community by the Minister of Justice, Senator the Honourable Mark Golding. On May 7, Senator Golding participated in a plenary session with several UN member states at the United Nations in a High Level Thematic Debate on International Drug Policy in preparation for the UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS) scheduled for April 19-21 2016. Minister Golding highlighted Jamaica’s perspectives called for open and inclusive discussions, including the creation of an expert advisory group to review the United Nations drug policy control architecture. Senator Golding’s statement can be viewed as indicative of the leading role that Jamaica is expecting to take in the Caribbean region on the issue of international drug policy.
While on May 14, the University of Technology (UTech) was also issued a Ministerial Order by the Minister of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining at its Medical Marijuana Integration Day. Under the theme “Cannabis Reclaimed” the President of the UTech outlined the intent of the institution to reap the "social benefits" of ganja that was highly anticipated from the emerging industry.
In June the Cannabis Licensing Authority held its first meeting while there was growing anxiety amongst advocates and potential investors as to the development of the industry and requirements for licenses.
In July the Minister of Justice signed the Criminal Records (Rehabilitation of Offenders) (Automatic Expungement of Convictions) Order 2015 to allow for the expungement of the records of persons with previous convictions for smoking ganja and possession of ganja where the sentence imposed was a fine not exceeding J$1,000 and the possession of pipes or other paraphernalia used for the smoking of ganja. This Order became effective on July 9.
In August the Minister of Industry Investment and Commerce at a press conference announced that the work on the ganja regulations for the industry was proceeding in eagerness and that consultants from the US-based research company BOTEC Analysis were engaged to assist with the development of recommendations for the country’s regulatory framework. The Minister also stated that recommendations to guide the development of the regulations for the ganja industry would be completed by the end of the following month.
The First National Congress of the Ganja Growers and Producers Association (GGPA) was held on September 12, where a majority of the members voted to accept a resolution to elect a President and two Vice Presidents tasked with representing the interest of the growers island wide. The GGPA also presented and adopted a Position Paper calling for the Government of Jamaica to establish two new legislations, namely the Cannabis Industry Development Act and the Rastafarian Sacramental Rights Act to govern the new approach to the ganja industry.
The Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA) in September issued a statement outlining the eight (8) point guiding principles for the sector. The Chairman of the CLA stated that these principles are intended to provide assurance, transparency and structure for persons seeking to operate in the official ganja industry.
In October, Jamaica for the first time had a representative to the Civil Society International Drug Policy training session on the United Nations Drug Conventions and drug control systems, held in The Netherlands by the Transnational Institute (TNI). This training was in preparation for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs to be held in April 2016 in New York. The participants in this very important drug policy training were from Bolivia, Guatemala, Jamaica and Nicaragua.
The month of November proved to be the acme to the 2015 ganja year in Jamaica. The month began with the Department of Government (UWI, Mona) in collaboration with the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (UWI, Mona) Chapter, hosting the inaugural “Caribbean Students Drug Policy Conference”, that had presentations from not only students of the university, but also members of the local ganja community and the wider Caribbean. There was also the presentation of a Position Paper put forward by the students to be included in the discussions towards UNGASS 2016.
During the November 18 – 21 International Drug Policy Reform Conference there was international recognition of Jamaica for its leadership in the Caribbean as it relates to the changing approach to ganja policy. Our Minister of Justice, Sen. Mark Golding was given the Kurt Schmoke Award for Achievement in the Field of Law at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference held in the Washington D.C. area. The International Conference also had seminal presentations from representatives of the Rastafarian Youth Council and the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) UWI, Mona Chapter.
In addition to having representatives at International Drug Policy conference, Jamaica was also invited through the St. Catherine Ganja Growers and Producers Association to participate in the International Conference on Alternative Development 2 (ICAD2) held in Thailand from November 19 – 24. The main benefit of participating in this conference was the gaining of a first-hand view and knowledge regarding how previously illicit crops can be utilized in a manner that leads to greater development as was the case with Thailand and their opium poppy cultivation.
The year culminated with a very important meeting between the Chairman of the CLA and the Executive members of the Ganja Growers and Producers Association (GGPA) from across the island. At the December 19 meeting some members of the GGPA outlined their concerns about the slow pace of the regulations and licensing system for the potential ganja industry, while the Chairman stated the importance of getting the regulations right, in order to prevent any breach of our international obligations.
The other side of the story
However, amidst all these activities there was still a great level of scepticism and fear about the country’s new approach to ganja. So much so that the National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA) in July, launched an aggressive public education a campaign against the use of ganja, in which they never failed to remind the Jamaican populace that “ganja was still illegal”. There was also a proliferation of articles forecasting the doom and gloom that would be brought on by the impending ganja industry. Articles such as “Lives going up in (ganja) smoke” published in August, highlighted stories of young men being “damaged irreparably by the weed”, and articles such as “Is ganja a saviour or seducer?” published in September which stated that the amended DDA was giving “law-breaking young people a bly”. These serve as examples that there are many persons in the Jamaican society that have very strong reservations regarding the changing of policy approach to ganja and the development of the potential ganja industry. It therefore means that there is a lot of work to do locally as well as internationally in relation to changing the attitudes of people towards ganja in 2016.
What is “High” on the Ganja Agenda 2016?
The UNGASS 2016 on the World Drug problem, which is to be held in April will provide an opportunity for Jamaica to present its new approach to the policy on ganja regulation and also influence the international discourse on the subject. But before getting to the UNGASS in New York, there will be the need for advocates such as the Rastafarian Community, GGPA and other civil society groups to become engaged in a meaningful way in the international discussions relating to the approach to regulation of illicit plants such as cannabis. It is hoped that the “2nd Cannabiz Business and International Investors Conference” scheduled for January 27 – 28, 2016, will discuss the international drug policy framework in relation to the UNGASS 2016. It would similarly be important for civil society groups to participate in the “Informal Interactive Stakeholder Consultation for the General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS) 2016, so as to get a better understanding of the international discourse while putting forward their positions. So in the final analysis it can be stated that for 2016, the issue of ganja regulations and a potential industry will not only be “high” on the local agenda, but also that of the international community.