Imani Duncan-Price | No marijuana until age 25
The support for the revolutionary changes to the Dangerous Drugs Act regarding marijuana/cannabis in 2015 has been mainly from the legal, business, and social perspective more than the medical perspective. After all, the harsh laws in place since 1948 were discriminatory and highly prejudicial towards Rastafarians and young urban males, exacerbated by police abuse.
The relatively minimal medical support also stems from the fact that there is little rigorous, verifiable research done to meet Western medical standards to date. The efficacy of cannabis as a medical solution is based primarily on local, traditional knowledge, which is not included in the syllabus of formal medical schools. In addition, there are real public-health concerns regarding 'freeing up the weed'.
Indeed, while Jamaica seeks to define the roll-out of this new industry from a business and growth perspective, it is also imperative to plan for the public-health concerns in a realistic way. This requires review of the public-health research that is available to make informed decisions - not just speak from personal experiences.
It is recommended that the health issues associated with cannabis be dealt with in the same manner as with any other product that can pose a public-health challenge such as tobacco and alcohol. As such, it is correct for the smoking of marijuana to fall under the same rule banning smoking in public areas as with cigarettes. For studies show that the cannabis smoke has more cancer-causing agents than tobacco smoke. Whereas those studies have been definitive, Dr Wendel Abel, former chairman of the National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA), public-health specialist and practising psychologist, maintains that the research linking cannabis to psychosis is controversial and is not definitive in terms of scientific evidence. However, the strongest evidence does conclude that it exacerbates illness in persons with a strong family history of mental illness. Interestingly, while that is conclusive, some persons with mental illness effectively use cannabis to self-medicate as it calms them and allows them to sleep better.
Dr Abel further states, however, that "there is a convincing body of evidence that young people who use the marijuana drug are vulnerable". He explains that "when young people use marijuana before age 24, it can affect cognitive ability".
As the brain is not fully mature until the mid-20s, this means that young people using marijuana are negatively impacted in terms of their ability to learn, remember, problem-solve, and pay attention. Couple this with the hormonal volatility of the turbulent teens, and it is clear that marijuana is not a drug for young people.
As the cannabis industry itself is established nationally over the next few years, there needs to be more significant funds channelled into protecting public health and public safety now. In particular, education programmes targeted at young people, and properly funded, need to be amplified nationally.
Dr Abel notes that "studies show that the initiation age for marijuana use in Jamaica is 12-14 years". This is the vulnerable period where children make the transition from primary school to high school, so programmatic focus needs to be at this stage. Imagine the improved education performance, especially of boys, if such interventions were effectively crafted and implemented.
There is also the need to strengthen the National Council on Drug Abuse to provide adequate services for young people, which would include treatment and counselling. Proper remuneration for persons employed to the NCDA would be important so that the council could attract and retain the high calibre needed to support this area of vulnerability in the nation.
In addition, it is critical for the Government to move on the 2015 proposal to establish the Juvenile Drug Court to address the challenges of persons 12-18 years and not inadvertently turn these young people into hardened criminals.
Other Policy Responses
Funding for the next Secondary School Survey, which is due in 2017, is a must. This survey is done every four years by the Government of Jamaica. With the last one conducted in 2013 (before the 2015 legislative amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act), the 2017 results will yield a story about behaviour and usage trends post the changes to the laws so that appropriate responses can be formulated.
In addition, the findings of the recently concluded household survey that monitors drug use in the population, especially among young people, along with the results of the Global Tobacco Use Survey, due October 2016, can yield insights into the extent of use and abuse. This is critical so that the challenges are properly understood and right solutions designed and actioned.
From a public-health perspective, there are some gaps in legislation. The Child Care and Protection Act needs to be strengthened with tough sanctions for the sale of marijuana to minors. There is also need for strong legislation and regulations regarding the availability of edibles such as cookies, muffins, gummy bears, brownies and even Busta candy infused with marijuana.
The levels of THC (which is the psychoactive substance in marijuana) in edibles is extremely high and variable. As these edibles are attractive to young people in high schools and on university campuses in Jamaica, there need to be enforceable laws to ensure that this group is sufficiently protected.
Furthermore, as the new Road Traffic Act is to be passed by Parliament shortly, it is hoped that the Ministry of Transport, the NCDA, the Cannabis Licensing Authority, and the Bureau of Standards have begun to think through appropriate legislation and regulations in the entirely new area of 'drug driving'.
There are tremendous benefits for the Jamaican society and economy, with the new "medical and therapeutic cannabis industry". To harness that, an inclusive stakeholder approach is needed in shaping this new industry to ensure a win-win outcome for all, including the small farmers and entrepreneurial enterprises in Jamaica.
So, too, should the public-health concerns be incorporated and actively addressed from now. As Jamaica moves forward in this new area, do so with eyes wide open to mitigate as many of the risks and challenges as possible, while maximising the benefits. Jamaica has the capacity to do this right.
- Imani Duncan-Price is co-executive director of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and former senator. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.