Yvonne McCalla Sobers | Traditional ganja cultivators: inclusion or exclusion?
The hope of becoming legal seems to be fading for traditional and indigenous ganja cultivators. They see two licences granted so far and have no idea when or how their turn might come, given the cost of being licensed. In the meantime, Alternative Development (AD) has been put forward to enable these cultivators to become legal. AD programmes in several countries support farmers of coca, opium, and ganja in cultivating legal crops instead.
According to the Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA), the AD programme in Jamaica will enable traditional ganja cultivators to set up ganja farms to cultivate weed for medical and therapeutic purposes only. However, AD programmes over the past 30 years have been considered failures. Reasons include:
- The underlying philosophy that owes more to prohibition than to development. The AD philosophy is also more closely aligned to adherence to 'war on drugs' treaties than to the culture in which the ganja cultivator operates.
- Limitations on funding for AD initiatives. Perpetuation of prohibitionist bias against cultivation of ganja for recreational purposes.
- Failure to consider the impact on traditional and indigenous cultivators of continued criminalisation of recreational ganja.
- Disqualification of persons with criminal records until an arbitrary time has passed since the prison term ended.
- Risks of the 'balloon effect', where one country's loss of illicit market share becomes a competitor's gain because the demand for ganja is constant, if not increasing. According to Forbes Magazine, the demand for ganja in 2017 exceeded the demand for ice cream.
To illustrate the development concerns of cultivators, let us consider George, a hypothetical Jamaican ganja cultivator. People in his community are among the poorest of poor rural folk. George and his peers grew up feeling excluded and marginalised. Most, like him, left school early, barely literate, and without employable skills. Farmers have grown accustomed to losing animals and plant crops to pests, weather, and praedial thieves. Moreover, the community has been severely underserved, with substandard housing stock, non-existent services, and long-neglected infrastructure.
George decided that cultivating ganja would give him the best chance of economic survival. He was cognisant of the risks of becoming involved in an illicit trade. For example, he would be in danger of coercion and intimidation backed up by kidnapping, extortion, incarceration, and lethal violence from drug traffickers and agents of the State alike. As a cultivator, he could well remain a 'walk foot' while his middlemen associates drove custom-built Benzes. His vulnerability would be greater than theirs because he would have to be close to fields located far enough in the bush to escape notice of authorities.
As the lowest in the chain, he would be an easy target for arrest and would have no legal recourse if business partners defaulted on agreements. He would, therefore, have to be prepared to defend himself or deal with defaulters as best he could. Further, he would make little money compared to the middlemen.
Nonetheless, George saw many benefits in cultivating ganja on his small plot. He, therefore, became self-employed with little capital outlay, education, or skills. His ganja crop needed no expensive inputs, was in constant demand, and had a guaranteed local and export market with a fairly fixed price. His produce harvested and dried was non-perishable, had a high yield relative to acreage, high value to weight, and higher returns per pound than any other known farm produce.
Further, he was seeing chances of upward social and economic mobility for his children whose schooling he can currently afford. Besides, he was able to look after his ageing parents.
Still, George realised his situation was fragile as long as he remained illegal. He joined the ganja cultivators' group in his parish and had many questions about AD:
1. What was the incentive for him to take part in a programme run by the State that he has reason to fear and mistrust?
2. Why should he take part in a programme that has not worked anywhere else and which requires him to destroy the livelihood that has served him and his family well?
3. Can he continue cultivating ganja until the AD programme shows signs of success so he does not give up sure for unsure?
4. How would AD compensate him for loss of his earnings from cultivation of recreational ganja?
5. Will AD require him, as a cultivator with years of hard-earned skills, knowledge, and experience, to work under a boss, especially one who knows little about growing ganja in Jamaican conditions?
6. Why is the same ganja plant legal for some and illegal for others, depending on how it is used and who can afford the separate licensing fees and start-up costs for cultivating, processing, transporting, and retailing?
7. Why does a retailer's alcohol licence for his village bar cost only J$300 per year, when a retailer's start-up ganja licence costs 1,000 times more at US$2,500 (more than J$300,000) per year?
8. Why give ganja such a fight when about 30,000 persons died of alcohol-induced causes (most recent report from the Centers for Disease Control) compared with a 2017 Drug Enforcement Guide that stated, "No deaths from overdose of marijuana have been reported."
If AD is to work, it will require a policy framework that is sensitive to the needs of all stakeholders. AD programmes could be seen as credible if they treat cultivators of recreational ganja as citizens to be helped rather than as criminals to be punished.
Authorities, therefore, need to correct a 'war on drugs' world view that sees working with cultivators of recreational ganja as condoning and rewarding criminal behaviour. These cultivators are likely to place greater trust in the State if they can be engaged in programmes that show likelihood of success. Unmet needs for improvements to roads, housing, education, job creation have been well articulated. In general, approaches would require treating cultivators of ganja (whether medicinal or not) as citizens with needs that the State is duty-bound to address.