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Jamaica's Marijuana Decriminalisation: Will the Rest of the Caribbean Follow Suit?

"Ganja", photo by Justin Schuck, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

“Ganja”, photo by Justin Schuck, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Jamaica has long been the Caribbean island that the developed world most associates with liberal marijuana use.

This perception might stem from the fact that the island's biggest global icon, the late reggae musician Bob Marley, was a committed Rastafarian, who routinely smoked herb as path to deeper spiritual awareness. In this sense, weed might seem as synonymous with Jamaica as reggae music, but despite tourists flocking from the Global North with dreams of spliffing up on a beach and feeling irie, cannabis use was  illegal on the island until recently.

That all changed last month — quite fittingly the month of Marley's birth — when the Jamaican House of Representatives passed a law decriminalising possession of up to two ounces of marijuana. The new legislation also allows people to grow up to five plants for personal use, and guidelines are currently being established for the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana and use of the herb for religious application.

The law has made Jamaica the first Caribbean nation to make the bold move of attempting to regulate cannabis use in a region where, in most cases, its illegality has not quelled consumption. Across the Caribbean, national justice systems are backlogged with minor possession offences that accomplish nothing more than sullying a young person's police record.

Jamaica joins a number of other countries who are pioneering this approach to dealing with marijuana use. In August last year, Global Voices published a story which suggested that decriminalisation could eventually happen across the Caribbean. Jamaica remains the single largest exporter of marijuana in the region.

Reaction to the news on Twitter was swift. There were several congratulatory tweets about the legislation, acknowledging the significance of the measure:

Some users of the microblogging service wondered what the benefits would be:

This Twitter user thought the move was long overdue…

…while others underscored the developed world's perceptions of the island:

In the Caribbean itself, however, some bloggers were surprised by the decision.

Rishona Campbell wrote in a post titled ‘Can Jamaica Profit from Marijuana Legalisation?':

This is a really surprising, but timely move by the Jamaican government. In spite of marijuana being so intrinsically tied into Jamaican culture, thanks to the Rastafarians, the laws of the country have prohibited its possession and use since 1913. […]

It seems that Jamaica has grown hip to the changing climate globally in regards to marijuana decriminalization. In all honesty, I thought that this would have happened much sooner in Jamaica, especially when the success of weed tourism in the Netherlands proved that you could tolerate marijuana use, and not have society implode itself. Interestingly enough, the Netherlands actually allots for a lesser amount, 5 grams, for personal use. However the Netherlands allows public use, and it is fully legal. Whereas in Jamaica (similar to the states of California and New York in the United States), it is simply decriminalized.

Her post went on to describe some of the ways in which she thought the island could reap huge profits from the harvest and sale of the drug, explaining that both medical marijuana and weed tourism could generate significant economic yields. She also added that Jamaica was in a unique position to capitalise on the “almost mythical marketing pull of all things marijuana-related”.

A pro-weed region?

On Facebook, many netizens echoed the opinion of Trinidad and Tobago-based Shaz Hudson, whose reaction to news of the legislation was:

we need to move with the times

And indeed, other jurisdictions are definitely taking notice. Trinidad and Tobago News Blog reported:

With Caribbean neighbour Jamaica making moves to decriminalise marijuana, University of the West Indies (UWI) Professor Emeritus Kenneth Ramchand is renewing his calls for marijuana to be decriminalised in Trinidad and Tobago for medicinal purposes […] and pointed to a good argument for decriminalising for personal use in limited quantities.

Rhisona Cambell, continuing her post, noted:

St. Lucia, Trinidad & Tobago and Antigua all have leaders who have addressed the topic. They acknowledged at CARICOM meetings that Jamaica is a leader in this area and are watching to see how they can make similar legislative moves in their own respective countries. Perhaps this is the type of peer pressure that Jamaica needs in order to make the right moves to turn marijuana from a proverbial villain, to an economic friend.

Rising to new heights

Time will tell whether or not Jamaica has started the ball rolling in terms of the legalisation of marijuana in the Caribbean, but satirical blog The Late O'Clock News, which positions itself as ‘the only legitimate news source in the Caribbean’ thought it would help the process along:

Trinidad and Tobago will become the second, but more important country in the Caribbean to legalize the growth, sale and lighting up of marijuana. The ‘Just Gimme D Light and Pass the Dro’ Bill of 2015 is hoped to be passed unanimously in the House of Representatives [in] April this year […]

In between puffs the Minister stated ‘Of course we weren’t going to let Jamaica show us up like that. T&T has always been a leader in the Caribbean, and anything Jamaica can do we can do better!’

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Biessessar took full credit for the landmark legislation. During a press conference at the Diplomatic Centre the PM proudly proclaimed ‘I have always promised that your government would take our country to new heights but few predicted how high we aspire to be!’

The blog also humorously anticipated a ‘munchies’-related economic boom:

Many local businessmen in the food service industry (chiefly doubles and corn soup vendors) are looking forward to a sudden and rapid increase in revenue after the bill passes in Parliament. As one vendor in Arima said: ‘To put it bluntly, we go have reelll [real] people to feed cuz men will be coming out like mad to satisfy some food cravings. Trust I.’

Currently, the new law is generating a lot of ideas, from groups proposing a ‘Ganja Cooperative’ of Jamaican weed farmers, to marijuana aficionados imagining the future of pot tourism in the region.

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