Gary Spaulding, Senior Gleaner Writer
THE SMOKE debate is heating up as the production of ganja falls in Jamaica and illegal importation of cigarettes swirls across local borders.
Minister of National Security Dwight Nelson told his counterparts in the region that data showed that marijuana production was steadily dipping.
But with each passing month, Customs has seized illegal cigarettes in massive bulk, signalling that smokers are being given expanding choices - both legal and illegal.
In the latest of a flurry of activities that have been affecting the industry, Finance Minister Audley Shaw's attempt to inject additional funds into government coffers has served to level the playing field for weed and cigarette smokers.
Many Jamaicans are known to smoke both cigarettes and ganja.
carreras not benefiting
But Michael Bernard, managing director of Carreras Limited, controller of the major bulk of the tobacco, is not of the view that the two are interrelated.
"I believe that any reduction in marijuana production or use is as a result of the efforts on the part of the authorities, but Carreras is definitely not benefiting from it," he declared.
When Jamaica Customs Contraband Enforcement Team seized a container with more than 400 cases of illegal cigarettes valued at $120 million destined for St Maarten, there was no doubt that illegal cigarettes were big business.
Shaw's announcement last Tuesday gave Carreras a fillip to press for more action from the Ministry of Health and the Customs Department.
The finance minister announced that the 10.5 per cent special consumption tax that normal cigarettes attract would be imposed on 'beedie', 'little cigars' and 'grabba' (locally grown tobacco). Two of these items - beedie and grabba - are generally mixed with ganja for smoking.
A 100 per cent increase in 2008, another 30 per cent hike in 2009, and a near 30 per cent jump in 2010 sent the taxes on cigarettes swirling and left the cigarette company in a cloud of gloom.
However, other smokers were not required to pay the hefty taxes for their habit, resulting in the prices of other sources of smoking being less than half that of normal cigarettes.
But last week, smokers of other shapes and forms got the blow cigarettes had been getting when Shaw expanded the range of sin tax on the products.
Bernard complains that the Ministry of Health imposes strict guidelines for his company but ignores ganja use, as well as beedie and grabba, and marijuana consumption.
"The focus of the Ministry of Health is on cigarette smoking," he charged. "They must of necessity extend that focus to ensure that health warnings with specifications are enforced and ensure that those requirements are met."
Customs and the Organised Crime Investigation Division have been swooping down on smugglers and holders of hundreds of thousands of illegal cigarettes that have been sneaked into Jamaica.
While Carreras Limited exhaled last week with the news that other forms of smoking would be taxed as heavily as cigarettes, the company's managing director wants more to be done to level the playing field.
Bernard appeared quite satisfied with the efforts of some Customs and law-enforcement officers, but called for more.
However, he conceded that the objective of marijuana producers and growers is the same: access to easy money.
Bernard postured that it is for this reason that illegal cigarettes are finding their way on or under shop shelves and are being sold cheaply.
"I am confident that, by their action, Jamaica Customs will do what is necessary to prevent illegal cigarettes from circulating in Jamaica," Bernard asserted.
However, he said Customs must go further to ensure that labelling requirements are met in relation to all cigarettes entering the island, and the correct amount of duties paid.
"We are concerned that Customs and law enforcement must meet those requirements," Bernard told The Sunday Gleaner. "They are making efforts, but we would like to see these efforts accelerated."
National Drugs Statistics
Seizures of cured marijuana (kg):
January to September 2007:
January to September 2008:
January to September 2009:
January to September 2010:
Between January and September 2007 and January and September 2010, seizures of cured marijuana declined by 47.6 per cent.
Source: Ministry of National Security