Caribbean countries following US lead on cannabis reform, for better or worse


When most people think of Jamaica, the first two things that come to mind are usually relaxing reggae music and killer cannabis. Yet, even though weed is widely accepted in public on the irie isle and brings in big tourism dollars, smoking marijuana is still technically illegal in Jamaica.
In an attempt to capitalize on a rise in support for marijuana decriminalization, organizations like the Ganja Law Reform Coalition and the Rastafari Millennium Council are making a push to convince the Jamaican government to end 100 years of prohibition on the marijuana plant.

In a joint press conference held on June 14th, the groups announced that they plan to host an international meeting of the minds, this September in Kingston, Jamaica. They said that the goal of the cannabis convention will be to discuss all things related to marijuana use, in an effort to convince more influential people to help put an end to cannabis prohibition in the region.
Introduced to the island in the mid-1800’s by East Indian laborers, ganja remained free to consume for just a half a century, becoming criminalized in 1913. For a century, cannabis enthusiasts in Jamaica have been trying to push their government toward legalization, their relentless struggles the inspiration for many a Peter Tosh or Bob Marley tune.
In 1964, Jamaica signed on to an international anti-drug treaty called the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This decision, many feel, was made under pressure from world powers like the United States, whose vehement opposition to issues like cannabis use has led critics to accuse America of “exporting its moral crusade around the globe”.
In the 1970’s and throughout the 80’s, American church groups and the US government spent millions of tithing and taxpayer dollars on aerial and naval blockades of the island, and a literal scorched earth policy of training Jamaican authorities how to locate and put the torch to illegal crops. Amazingly, public polling in Jamaica at the time showed that two-thirds of the population favored the government’s role in enforcing the nation’s marijuana laws and penalties, preferring to keep ganja illegal, at least on paper.

Jamaican outdoor herb.

Just as marijuana polling has wildly reversed itself over the years here in the US, much has changed in the average Jamaican’s perspective on pot since the 80’s. Today, while it is still “illegal”, marijuana can be purchased quite literally as you step off of the plane, and then will be offered to you by pretty much every person you meet.
Still, though, raids on marijuana growing and trafficking operations yielded nearly 15,000 pounds of herb and 75 pounds of hash oil between 2010 and 2012, all of which was incinerated by authorities in one huge bonfire. Local advocacy groups point to headlines like these and see legalization, or at least decriminalization, as the only acceptable future for ganja in Jamaica.
Lord Anthony Gifford, a lawyer in Jamaica and London and a director of the Ganja Law Reform Coalition, couldn’t resist the easy quote when asked about the current movement, “I think Jamaican opinion is very favourable on the whole issue of the legalization of ganja, but we need to get up stand up, stand up for our rights.” Yeah, he went there.
The issue is a human rights one, according to Gifford who discovered the benefits of marijuana use during his own bout with cancer, and he believes that there should not be any penalty for adults who use cannabis in a moderate and responsible manner.
Electing to forego the assumed religious defense that his group is certainly entitled to, Assistant secretary of the Rastafari Millennium Council, Tzdhne Ishigyhd is instead attempting to highlight the economic impact that legal weed could have on the dependent Caribbean nation. He contends that the proper regulation and taxation of Jamaican ganja could make the country independent of the International Monetary Fund because, he states, “the by-products from hemp can make garments, it can make a lot of healing products such as oils, the uses are endless…”
Jamaica’s path from prohibition, to limited tolerance, to loud and popular demands for decriminalization and legalization follows a similar arc as the same issue has taken in the United States. It’s no surprise then that the US-held territory of Puerto Rico saw protestors march down the streets on the capitol city of San Juan on 4/20, demanding reform to their own failing cannabis laws. A similar march took place on the same date in St. Lucia, where members of the St. Lucia Cannabis Movement gathered to raise awareness of the many benefits of cannabis.
As the tide continues to rise on cannabis acceptance here in the US, so too rise the hopes of those Caribbean cannabis connoisseurs whose nation’s governments have historically followed our lead on the controversial issue.