A path to independence paved with marijuana

Trinidad and Tobago flag image, public domain. Cannabis leaf by Oren neu dag (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons. Images remixed by Georgia Popplewell

By Nazma Muller

The prohibition against cannabis—or marijuana, as the dried form of the plant is commonly known—was introduced in Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean during the colonial era by the crown colony government. It was reinforced by the signing of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, an international treaty to prohibit the production and supply of certain (nominally narcotic) drugs, and of drugs with similar effects except under licence for specific purposes, such as medical treatment and research.

Today, as Trinidad and Tobago celebrates its 56th anniversary of independence, this convention and all its derivatives, including cannabis’ classification by the World Health Organization as a Schedule I drug, continue to be used as obstacles to any kind of legal reform of our drug laws. This even as the illegal drug trade wreaks havoc in the country, taking hundreds of lives and corrupting the police force, the Coast Guard, the Defence Force, and customs officials with lucrative bribes and payoffs. Even as hundreds die from a cancer crisis rooted in our industrial/consumerist lifestyle, thousands are arrested and jailed for possession of cannabis while a corrupt, overburdened justice system collapses.

For Trinidad and Tobago, currently facing the sudden shutdown of a major oil refinery at Petrotrin, this is a sobering moment, but one that has long been on the cards. And there is little time to wallow in regret. The country’s citizens are used to crying over spilt billions but there isn’t much left in the Treasury, and we are going to have to think fast as we become forcibly “independent” of the oil/gas cushion on which we have been floating for the last 100 or so years.

For decades, economists have been urging the government to diversify the economy. Well, they have no choice now. And one obvious option would be cannabis. I mean, if Canada feels they need to legalise recreational cannabis, who are we as a small tropical island to turn up our noses at the green gold?

In the lead-up to the last general elections in 2015 both the current prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Keith Rowley, and his predecessor, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, both responded to questions about the decriminalization of cannabis by saying that they would leave the matter to the regional body CARICOM, which established the Regional Commission on Marijuana in 2014.

The members of the commission, led by Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, dean of the Faculty of Law at the Trinidad campus of the University of the West Indies, are among the most distinguished practitioners in their respective fields. The deputy chair is Professor Wendell Abel, a consultant psychiatrist at the University Hospital of the West Indies and the head of Psychiatry at the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of the West Indies’ Jamaica campus. Professor Abel has worked in the field of mental health for many years in Jamaica and the Caribbean and holds a Master’s in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University, among other qualifications. Professor Abel has published several peer-reviewed book chapters, technical papers and journal articles focusing on mental health and health policy issues such as suicide, depression and community mental health services. He has been at the forefront of leading empirical research in the Caribbean on the mental health effects of cannabis. Another commissioner is Esther Best, manager of the National Drug Council of Trinidad and of the country’s overarching drug policy and strategy. She has represented the country and the region at a number of important international fora on drug reform and policy.

The Regional Commission released its final report to the public on August 3. “On balance, after evaluating the scientific data and testimonies from the public, the Commission is of the view that the proven medical benefits of cannabis/marijuana in several areas outweigh the risks,” the report states. According to the report, which is entitled “Waiting to Exhale—Safeguarding our Future Through Responsible Social-Legal Policy on Marijuana”:

“This finding is consistent with those of numerous other national bodies/ Commissions in the region and globally and that of international bodies, the most influential of which have labelled the current legal regime ‘redundant’ and ‘obstructionist’. . . . The scientific data supports law reform to permit the use of marijuana, but in a controlled regulatory environment. A public health, rights-based, non-prohibitionist approach focused on high‐risk users and practices – similar to the approach favoured with alcohol and tobacco – allows for more control over the risk factors associated with cannabis‐related harms than the current, ineffective prohibition, which heightens health risks and induces social harms.”

The report recommends three possible options individual governments could take toward implementing its findings: decriminalise, legalise with state production, or legalise with private sector production and state oversight.

The government of Trinidad and Tobago is well positioned to harness the immense technical capacity and infrastructure of this oil and gas producing nation to become a leader and key mover in a CARICOM-wide cannabis and hemp industry. We have within CARICOM all the conditions and expertise required for technical collaboration and for the cultivation of sufficient volumes of cannabis and hemp. And unique to this region is a nearly century-old indigenous religious and social movement—Rastafari—in which marijuana use plays a central role, an activity for which adherents have unjustly paid the price. A developed cannabis industry could meet the medical needs of our people, create value-added products that can be sold intra-regionally (nutraceuticals, paper hempcrete, etc), create jobs and raise the standard of living for the working-class and marginalised people of the region. That would be a truly independent move.

Nazma Muller is a Trinidad-born member of the Rastafari movement. She is the leader of the Caribbean Collective for Justice, which advocates environmental and social justice for the entire region.

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