Thu | Oct 19, 2017

Yvonne McCalla Forbes | Ganja industry : space to grow and develop?

Published:Sunday | August 20, 2017 | 12:06 AMYvonne McCalla Sobers
A section of the University of Technology's ganja nursery.
Yvonne McCalla Sobers
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Ganja had an honourable history of more than 12,000 years as a cultivated crop before it was demonised in the last century.

The plant migrated to the West from Asia where, for thousands of years, it was used mainly for medicinal and spiritual purposes. In the US, ganja was prescribed medicinally until the 1930s when it was portrayed as an evil drug that caused black men to rape white women and Mexicans to murder Caucasians.

As a result of this campaign, allegedly launched by persons with a profit motive for wanting to destroy the hemp industry, the US criminalised ganja in 1937. Classified as a Schedule 1 drug, ganja was said to have high potential for abuse; no recognised medical usage; and no safe usage under medical supervision.

The United Nations (UN) later combined international treaties against the use of ganja. According to the UN's Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961, supplemented 1971 and 1988), ganja is treated in the same way as opium and is placed under the heaviest control regime. Parties cannot freely produce, process, export, import, and distribute ganja; they must use the plant exclusively for medical and scientific purposes.

Nonetheless, parties differ in the way they implement the convention. Some impose prison time for traces of ganja in the blood or urine; others allow limited amounts of ganja for recreational use.

In recent times, the US has been ambivalent about ganja. The federal government enforces compliance with international drug treaties at home and abroad. Yet 29 states have legalised medicinal ganja and eight states (plus Washington, DC) have legalised recreational ganja as well.

In July 2017, US Congressman Cory Booker made a further move towards a more liberal approach to ganja. He proposed a bill that would encourage all 50 states to legalise ganja and remove it from the schedule of dangerous drugs.

Many other countries have found ways to temper compliance. They have sought to balance protecting health and safety with promoting economic growth and job creation. Some have interpreted, in their best interest, a treaty clause that allows a country to criminalise drug offences "subject to its constitutional principles and basic concepts of its legal system".

Since 1976, Holland has allowed consumers to buy ganja legally in coffee shops. Uruguay, in 2013, was the first country to legalise the sale, cultivation, and distribution of ganja; and Canada is close to implementing plans to fully legalise ganja. Portugal has decriminalised all drugs; India has legalised ganja leaves for traditional and indigenous use; and Bolivia has legalised coca leaves for traditional and indigenous use.

The Jamaican ganja brand has earned a place on the global black market. However, growth of Jamaica's legal ganja industry faces limitations. The island's fragile economy, its location close to the US, and its difficulties in addressing organised crime and drug trafficking contribute to Jamaica's being profiled as a transit and source for illegal drugs. Failure to comply with international regulations could, therefore, result in Jamaica's being decertified (denied US assistance).

Jamaica could also risk being delisted (blocked from correspondent banking services and impeded in making foreign currency transactions). Already, Caribbean nations have been delisted because of money-laundering fears.

Nonetheless, Jamaica is at the vanguard of new approaches to ganja. The mandate of the Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA) includes regulating use of ganja as medicine, sacrament, and plant that can be grown at home. These uses breach the strict interpretation of international drug treaties. Exploring further openings or changes in the international treaties could be in Jamaica's interest. If Jamaica's legal ganja industry is to take root, policymakers will need to pay attention to:

- Entry costs. The cost of each licence is US$5,000. A legal cultivator would need separate licences to transport, sell, and process his crop. Further costs would include securing and tracking the product from seed to sale.

- Distinctions (if any) between recreational and medicinal ganja. Different strains may be used to treat different medical conditions, but those same plants can be used recreationally.

- Status of ganja. People can still be arrested for ganja-related crimes such as smoking in public places, possessing more than two ounces of ganja, or failure to pay a ticketed fine for having two ounces or less of ganja.

- Parallel existence of the illegal market. The underground market may find few incentives to become legal. It seems the target needs to be creating an industry so profitable and reasonably taxed that members and consumers would not want to risk non-compliance.

- Implications of closed-loop system. If licensees can do business (such as buy, sell, and transport ganja) only with other licensees, supply will need to meet demand. The CLA's website shows it has no licensees in its database at this time.

- Business access to banking services. Because ganja is still illegal, banks risk criminal prosecution if they work with any ganja-related business. Without access to banking services, ganja entrepreneurs cannot get loans or mortgages and they must do all transactions in cash.

- Patient access to medicinal ganja. The public will need databases of legal ganja dispensaries and doctors qualified to prescribe medicinal ganja.

- Licensee access to legal markets. Entrepreneurs will need information on likely supply, demand, and price sensitivity in the local market. The legal overseas market will be beyond reach while international regulations remain prohibitionist.

- Strategies for dealing with the 'grey market'. This sector serves those who feel frustrated by inefficiencies, restrictions, or lack of timeliness in the legal medicinal ganja market. Some jurisdictions crack down on the grey market in attempts to destroy it; others (like Canada) are seeking to assimilate it into the legal market.

- Protection for adolescents. Strategies need to be in place to protect at-risk teens from the harmful effect of psychoactive ganja on developing brains.

Movement in setting up Jamaica's legal ganja industry has been slow. The amendment to the ganja law took effect in April 2015. Yet, up to May 2017, only two licences had been granted: one to a small-scale cultivator and the other to a small-scale processor.

Decisive action is needed if Jamaica is to benefit from a legal ganja industry. Opportunities will need to be grasped while they remain open.

- Yvonne McCalla Sobers is an author, educator, human rights activist, and aquaponic farmer with an interest in medicinal ganja. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and sobersy@yahoo.com.