Mon | Apr 6, 2020

Ganja free-for-all - Sunday Gleaner probe finds loose screening process at local herb houses; leaked drug council report confirms concerns

Published:Sunday | February 2, 2020 | 12:35 AMCorey Robinson - Senior Staff Reporter
Ganja products purchased by a Sunday Gleaner reporter, from a number of outlets licensed to sell marijuana for medicinal purposes in the Corporate Area, without providing any evidence of having a medical need.

Jamaica’s infantile medical marijuana industry is already coming under threat from distributors who appear to be flouting regulations set out by the Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA) under the Dangerous Drugs Act.

At the same time, lax medical checks and questions about the potency of drugs sold at some outlets are causing additional worries for the National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA). But there is little the regulating CLA can do about it.

During a Sunday Gleaner probe last week, representatives from the Ganja Café, located in Eden Gardens on Lady Musgrave Road in the Corporate Area, sold a reporter marijuana without a doctor’s prescription or recommendation, as per the requirements from the CLA.

At other locations, like the Kaya Herb House, also on Lady Musgrave Road, and Itopia Life on East King’s House Road, three-minute medical screenings, sometimes via cell phone, were offered to customers before they were allowed to purchase the drug.

Last week, the Epican outlet in Market Place on Constant Spring Road seemed the strictest of four outlets with regard to standards, the Sunday Gleaner probe found. However, the findings of an NCDA secret shopper study obtained by The Sunday Gleaner found Epican slipping in its obligations earlier this month.

“No medical consultation was done. I was advised that the night of my visit was a night where the store waived medical consultations. On any other day, a client would be required to register for $1,500, speak with a medical doctor on a Skype phone call, and then be allowed to make a purchase of any marijuana product that the store has in stock,” read the NCDA report.

Simply posing as a hotel guest, a reporter was able to purchase one gram of marijuana from the Ganja Café without medical consultation or recommendation for $1,000 last week.

The same was true at Itopia Life where the reporter, as a client, was asked to fill out a medical questionnaire that was to be passed on to a doctor for approval after the fact. The Sunday Gleaner was then able to purchase a gram of marijuana from the establishment.

There were strict security measures at all of the outlets last week, and some, like Itopia Life, employed metal detectors at the entrances while enforcing strict ‘no smoking’ rules outside the library-like smoking lounges.

At Kaya Herb House, customers were not allowed to hold sample containers while sniffing blends of indica and sativa, and staff there insisted on medical screening before purchases can be made. Screening was a three-minute cell phone call with a ‘doctor’ who asked the client four questions. Registration and screening was at a cost of $1,000.

One hostess at Kaya Herb House took the liberty to tick ‘stress’ on the reporter’s digital medical form where it asked ‘reason for usage’. When asked why she did that, she responded, with a smile: “That’s what most customers tick.”

In the NCDA report, its investigator, who visited Kaya Herb House twice this month, said: “I purchased two grams of unprocessed marijuana at a cost of US$26 in Jamaican equivalent. Sales agent could not divulge potency level or THC/CBD content of marijuana products on sale.”

Last week, Director of Client Services at the NCDA Collette Kirlew, who was not aware that The Sunday Gleaner was in possession of the secret shopper findings, said the council did not believe ganja was being sold and used at these locations for medicinal purposes, as is stipulated by law.

“We are concerned that the recommendations for use may go beyond medicinal or therapeutic purposes. We want to emphasise that the use of ganja for recreational purposes is still illegal, and smoking is prohibited in public spaces, recreational and educational facilities,” she noted.

“There is a lot of recreational buying and that is not therapeutic, and the process is not as rigorous as it should be,” she explained, noting the implications of ganja usage, particularly on youths.

One store operator told The Sunday Gleaner that many of his business clients were university students.

The NCDA report questioned the exorbitant prices charged for ganja sold in the outlets – which The Sunday Gleaner found was 10 times more than that sold illegally on the street for the same quantity – and it also called for greater consideration to be given to recreational smokers, who seem to make up most of the persons purchasing and using ganja at the locations identified.

“Doctors seem to screen patients to make sure they are not at risk from smoking marijuana. If the doctor is told of a medical need to have marijuana, that is, however, taken into consideration,” the report underscored.

On Friday, CLA Chief Executive Officer Lincoln Allen explained that the local medical marijuana industry is still young and it will take time for all the kinks to be ironed out. For now, CLA investigators cannot be everywhere, he argued, calling for the public to report breaches.

Allen noted that while the CLA is tasked with policing the industry, it has no jurisdiction over how medical approval is diagnosed or distributed.

“When our officers visit these locations, most things appear to be in order. If we find that anything is not consistent with the regulations or the terms and conditions of the licence, then we will write them,” said Allen, who could not immediately say how many outlets have been sanctioned for breaches since the establishment of the CLA in 2016.

“The CLA cannot tell a doctor or medical practitioner how to write a prescription or a recommendation. We don’t determine what those prescription guidelines are. It is outside of the remit of the CLA; we are not medical doctors,” he explained.

“We might have our own concerns about it, but it is outside of our jurisdiction. That is something that would fall in the remit of the Ministry of Health.”