A lot has happened and a lot has not happened

Demystifying the changes - Examination of the Jamaican experience
Vicki Hanson
Thursday, October 20, 2016

Vicki HansonAt the recently concluded 6th Latin American and 1st Caribbean Conference on Drug Policy, held in Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic, I started a discussion on the cannabis situation in Jamaica with a statement that “A lot has happened and a lot has not happened”, and this is the very same way I wish to start the engagement in this blog. Jamaica has in the last two (2) years has been thrust into the midst of the international discourse on drug policy reform, with specific emphasis on Cannabis reform.

This is because of the country’s current efforts to reform the 100 years old, prohibitionist approach to how we govern cannabis, in a state that is viewed as one of the world’s leading producers of the plant, and the cultural importance that this plant plays in the Jamaican society.

As a means of driving this reform the Jamaican government in 2015 amended the Dangerous Drugs Act, which set the expectations of, not only local industry players, but also many persons overseas that have an interest in cannabis. The Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Acts (DDA), 2015 resulted some significant changes to our cannabis policy approach. “A lot has happened” as it relates to the fact that now persons are no longer criminalized for possession of 2 ounces or less of cannabis, but instead it is proposed to give them a ticket with a fine of JMD 500 (USD 4). The changes in the law have also resulted in the expungement of records of persons that had convictions for small amounts of cannabis or a joint (also called spliff in Jamaica).

Another significant think that happened is the recognition that cannabis has an important space in the religious practices of the Rastafarian faith, and as such this group was granted the right to cultivate and use cannabis in their community and in their various festivals to celebrate their faith. Additionally, the traditional use of cannabis by the common citizens was recognized by allowing the growing of 5 plants or less for household use and horticultural purposes. What has also happened is that the government is now currently looking to develop a medical cannabis industry that will also be available to tourists as well as locals.

This has led to the establishment of the Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA) which is the entity tasked with issuing the licenses for the industry. There has been the enactment of a licensing framework to cater to various participants in the industry at different levels. The changes to the DDA 2015, as led to an increase interest from “potential investors” who have entered the country in an evangelical like manner offering to assist local traditional farmers to reap the benefits of this “green gold”. Notwithstanding, these important happenings, there remains a great deal of concerns about what has not happened.

“A lot has not happened” as it relates to seeing a change in attitude and approach toward the use of the plant by important national organizations such as the National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA) and some of our Medical Doctors. The NCDA has maintained a negative campaign against the use of the cannabis plant. This is also coupled with the fact that there are still medical practitioners that have maintained that cannabis does not have any medical benefits and as such is not inclined to write prescriptions or recommend the use of cannabis as an alternative treatment. There also remains the lack of recognition by the Jamaican Health Authorities of traditional/naturopathic practitioners who would be willing to recommend cannabis use.

Another thing that did not happen as expected was that the establishment of a Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA) would have made the process of regulating the industry easier. On the contrary, the proposed licensing fees (which is stated in USD) have been viewed as exorbitant, and an obstacle for small traditional cannabis growers to become formalized and a part of the legally regulated industry. These traditional cannabis growers still have challenges to access resources such as land and financing to help them move into the legally regulated system.

The traditional cannabis farmers are still not viewed as being legitimate contributors to Sustainable Development, especially at the community level. Added to this, is the fact that even after UNGASS 2016 there remains no clear path for traditional growers to access an emerging international market now that several US states have regulated cannabis and Canada’s intention to do so in 2017. This is mainly because the international drug conventions do not allow regulation of recreational cannabis and domestic regulations in the US do not allow import due to the federal ban. This means that these traditional cannabis growers are at a huge disadvantage compared to the commercial cannabis industry that is developping in the US and Canada. The risk is that traditional Jamaican growers are loosing the share they had in the market, now that licit markets are emerging.

It therefore, remains important that the Jamaican society and more specifically, our traditional cannabis growers continue to advocate for meaningful changes to cannabis policy in Jamaica that will result in development at all levels.

Vicki Hanson is a member of the Steering Committee of the Association of Ganja Growers and Producers and the co-founder of the University of West Indies Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) chapter in Mona, Jamaica. See also: 2015 the Year of Ganja in Jamaica.