Sun | May 26, 2019

Ganja caution - WHO policy shift won’t give free rein to weed, economist says

Published:Saturday | February 2, 2019 | 12:20 AM:Paul Clarke

A respected economist has cautioned Jamaican interests in the emerging medicinal cannabis industry to moderate their optimism amid the World Health Organization’s (WHO) historic shift in policy on curative qualities of weed.

The WHO, in a press statement issued on Thursday, revealed that it was walking back its stance on cannabis in its Single Convention drug treaty dating back to 60 years, having “officially assessed all available evidence, and is issuing scientific recommendations on the therapeutic value and harms related to Cannabis sativa”.

“Such a move is a major breakthrough in international cannabis policy and a clear victory of evidence over politics,” the WHO said.

But even with the imprimatur of a heavy hitter like the chief health arm of the United Nations, medicinal marijuana lobbyists should hold off popping the champagne because international banking policy would not automatically change.

“The banking industry has been reluctant to deal with illicit drugs. Particularly, countries like Jamaica have been squeezed because they have to go through the US banking system,” economist Peter-John Gordon told The Gleaner last night.

“That doesn’t necessarily change because a scientific fact has changed. The fact that cannabis has overwhelming positives doesn’t mean that all countries believe there should be no regulation,” added the University of the West Indies lecturer.

Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton was optimistic that the WHO’s declaration on the value of marijuana for medicinal use would help to strengthen and legitimise trade in cannabis and its by-products.

“What it means is that it, hopefully, will now get countries across the world to see the medicinal marijuana industry as a legitimate industry to be pursued, expanded, invested in, and it will, hopefully, encourage acceptance across the board, and the global system of trade for usage will become legitimised, and, by extension, countries can now collaborate to exploit the benefits,” he said.

CREDIT TO JAMAICA

Tufton told The Gleaner that he now feels that credit belongs to Jamaica, having led a team to the WHO two years ago, where they made a number of recommendations to that body on the merits of medicinal marijuana and the need for that organisation to consider the benefits of decriminalisation.

“Then last year, we got a correspondence from them to say the Expert Committee was, in fact, meeting on it, so the point is that Jamaica can claim some victory for the role we played because we went there and actually made the appropriate recommendations for this consideration to take place,” the minister said.

Fifty-three United Nations countries now have to approve the WHO recommendations, thus amending the convention’s schedules if the simple majority vote is positive. Initially planned for March 2019, it is possible that the two-month delay in the publication of the results will cause the postponement of the vote until March 2020.

However, Jamaica’s health minister acknowledges that stringent rules on corresponding banking – the networking of global exchange and transfers from smaller banks through major global ones – have compromised the launching out of medicinal marijuana and may continue to do so in the near future.

“One of the biggest obstacles to medicinal marijuana over the years has been the restrictions of the world financial system, in particular the US, where marijuana has been seen at the federal level as not being allowed to trade,” Tufton noted.

“So with the WHO taking this position and agreeing, it means that all other countries now will adjust their policies and the global trade system will similarly be adjusted over time to accommodate, guided by certain standards, of course, the trading, research, and the development of products from medicinal cannabis,” he said.

NOT AUTOMATIC

Gordon, too, conceded that endorsements from international organisations like the WHO could incrementally chip away at long-standing political barriers.

“The more news like this comes out, it’s more likely to lead to some relaxation, but it’s not automatic,” Gordon said, warning of the cost-benefit advantage.

“It’s clear that public sentiment to cannabis has changed, but the federal government has not changed. A local bank knows that if it is involved with people who trade in ganja, they run a risk with international partners. If they’re blacklisted, it’s not worth it.”

paul.clarke@gleanerjm.com