Yvonne McCalla Sobers | Ganja regulation: wheel and come again
Ganja regulation has a place. However, over-regulating the ganja industry has the same effect as prohibition. It benefits Big Business (local and foreign), which can navigate the red tape and knock away barriers to entry.
Over-regulating also encourages Big Ganja to continue business as usual, assured that most of the law-abiding will be too shackled to compete. In addition, it placates drug-control watchdogs with outdated beliefs about ganja while alienating those most familiar with local realities.
Uniform international drug policies applied to very varied local contexts have resulted in 50 years of lost lives and untold suffering. If the Jamaican Government is serious about setting up a legal ganja industry, it needs to let go of the UN 'dangerous drug' concept and treat ganja as a plant with potential still to be explored.
New thinking about drugs is constantly emerging. For example, the Lancet and Johns Hopkins University brought together 22 medical experts who, in March 2016, called for the decriminalisation of all non-violent drug use and possession. These experts further encouraged countries to "move gradually toward regulated drug markets and apply the scientific method to their assessment".
The dangers of ganja have long been overstated to justify prohibition. Research shows that ganja poses fewer risks than sugar, alcohol, or nicotine and is likely to have the same degree of negative side effects as penicillin. Research and anecdotal data also link ganja to health benefits such as increasing appetite, promoting sleep, treating and preventing glaucoma, easing pain and nausea, controlling epileptic seizures, and stopping the spread of cancer.
No one has died from a ganja overdose, but some (especially those under 18 years old or with pre-existing mental-health conditions) must avoid use of this drug unless under medical supervision. Despite centuries of use of medical ganja, myths about ganja continue to frame international policies.
Countries caught between prohibiting and legalising ganja are in danger of retaining prohibition with over-regulation. These measures may still be punitive, however palatably they may be portrayed. Some current terms show lingering effects of prohibition. For example, 'decriminalise' means that ganja is still criminalised with exceptions related to quantity, purpose, and licensing. 'Regulate' may mean that ganja is legalised for those able to meet licensing criteria and is otherwise criminalised.
The meaning of 'legalise' is evolving and can differ by country or state. In Colorado, for example, 'legalise' means that individuals cannot be arrested, ticketed, or convicted for using ganja as long as they follow laws related to age, place, and amount for consumption. Selling ganja is, however, subject to licence and taxation.
Prohibition and Jamaica
A law prohibiting ganja has been in force in Jamaica since 1913. Resistance to this law sent thousands to prison, disproportionately affecting poor black males and their dependents. Consequently, many expected that the 2015 amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act would signal the end of prohibition. In May 2016, the Government published interim regulations based on models adopted overseas. Those who built the Jamaica brand under very adverse conditions may find that these regulations provide them with little hope of securing a place in the legal ganja industry.
Traditional or aspiring ganja farmers will be daunted by the scope of the interim regulations. A hypothetical Farmer J, for example, will need separate licences to cultivate, retail, distribute, transport, and research. He must form a company or be a member of a cooperative if he is to carry out all these activities except cultivation. Fees for these licences range from US$300 to US$10,000 yearly.
The process of qualifying for the licences will add to obstacles facing Farmer J. He will need to produce police records (for himself and authorised employees), tax-compliance certificates, and proof of land ownership or permission to use land. He will need to keep records of every transaction, every person entering and exiting the farm; and all ganja plants or products received, sold, or otherwise disposed of. He will also need to submit reports in the format and time required.
In addition, Farmer J must secure his property with a six-foot-high chain-link fence around the perimeter and surveillance cameras that can be tracked on a website. Most important, before growing his first crop of ganja, he must show proof of contracts with licensed 'downstream buyers' who may demand structures (such as greenhouses with irrigation, cooling systems, and artificial light) that add to Farmer J's cost. He risks impoverishing himself if he borrows money to cover the expense of qualifying for a licence. Making a profit is almost out of the question.
The winners will, therefore, be those with the longest pockets and widest influence, and there may be little incentive for illicit traders to become licit. Adherence to UN conventions is likely to prove unworkable in a Jamaican context.
For more than 50 years, UN conventions have failed to reduce the drug trade despite brutal efforts in pursuing the war on drugs. These one-size-fits-all international treaties are in conflict with current trends in addressing drug use as a health issue rather than a crime.
The global consensus on drug prohibition is falling apart. The UN's drug-treaty watchdog has confirmed that countries are in direct breach of international drug treaty obligations if they regulate ganja markets. However, many countries and states have breached the UN conventions without facing international sanctions.
The United States of America remains prohibitionist internationally and at the federal level while four states breach the conventions by legalising ganja. More states are likely to legalise ganja before the end of 2016. Uruguay legalised ganja in 2013, but its over-regulation has led to inefficiency and has fuelled scepticism. In 2011, Bolivia withdrew from one of the UN conventions and returned in 2013 on condition that it could legalise the traditional use of the coca leaf. Portugal legalised all drugs as long ago as 2001, and Canada has announced that it will legalise ganja as of April 2017. Latin American countries such as Mexico seem to be reviewing their options in light of the high human cost of the failed war on drugs.
Countries hoping for a green light from the UN will wait at least another three years before the drug conventions come up for review again. In the meantime, countries can decide to be assertive policymakers rather than subservient policy-takers. Those impatient with failed and outdated policies can continue to take advantage of gaps and ambiguities in the text of the international drug treaties. It is increasingly clear that compliance with the UN international treaties is now optional.
Review of these interim regulations is essential in enabling policymakers to be guided by evidence rather than by myth or fear. It is hoped that town hall meetings will be held with some urgency to enable traditional and aspiring ganja farmers to share their concerns with government officials. If regulations are to be credible, they need to be grounded in Jamaican realities and unimpeded by outdated drug treaties.