Glenn Tucker, Guest Columnist
"Penalties against drug use should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against the possession of marijuana in private or personal use." - - President Jimmy Carter, message to Congress, August 2, 1977
I don't know if it has anything to do with the growing number of American states that are voting to decriminalise ganja, but the great ganja debate is surfacing here again.
In April of this year, I successfully infused myself into a conversation two young men were having about the similarities in a recent experience that came to an end in the Half-Way Tree RM Court that day. Both men were jailed when they were found with a ganja spliff. They spent nine days in the jail, pleaded guilty and were charged $100 each. So that should be that. But not really.
While they were incarcerated, both men lost their jobs. One's common-law wife took their two children and returned to live with her parents in the country. The other wondered aloud whether the conviction would spoil his chances of migrating, as those arrangements had already started.
Since the 1970s, there have been government-appointed commissions - here and abroad - that have examined the use of ganja and made public policy recommendations regarding its use.
Overwhelmingly, the conclusions of these expert panels have been the same: marijuana prohibition causes more social damage than marijuana use, and the possession of marijuana for personal use should no longer be a criminal offence.
Ganja has been used therapeutically from the earliest records, nearly 5,000 years ago, to the present day, and its products have been widely noted for their effects - both physiological and psychological - throughout the world. Although the Chinese and Indian cultures knew about the properties of this drug from early times, it was not until the fifth century that this information became general in the Near and Middle East.
Ganja is still extensively used in the Ayruvedic, Unani and Tibbi systems of medicine in the Indian-Pakistani subcontinent. Mikuriya - in his book Marijuana in Medicine: Past, Present and Future, lists analgesic-hypnotic, appetite stimulant, antiepileptic, antispasmodic, prophylactic, treatment of neuralgias, including migraine, antidepressant-tranquiliser and anti-asthmatic properties as some of the ailments that marijuana has proven to produce positive results.
In 1977, after decades of counterproductive attempts to stop the production and use of ganja, the Jamaican Government set up a joint select committee to study ganja and make policy recommendations. The committee rejected full legalisation only because it felt Jamaica would be in violation of certain treaties, but unanimously agreed that "there was a substantial case for decriminalising personal use of ganja". It recommended "no punishment" for personal use of up to two ounces on private premises, and total legalisation of medical marijuana.
But the mighty United States stepped in, with the Church in tow, and ordered the Government to ignore those recommendations.
Twenty-two years later, the US halved its support for Jamaica's anti-marijuana efforts, primarily because we chose to use cutters rather than the herbicides and other poisons it recommended.
That year - 1999 - then Senator Trevor Munroe was able to get a National Commission on Ganja started. The commission conducted hearings from a wide cross section of Jamaica's population. One ex-policeman testified that his chronic hypertension, after 19 years of prescribed medication, completely disappeared with the now-regular smoking of ganja. The recommendation: to "advise the lawmakers to amend the laws to make private personal possession of small amounts of ganja legal". The prime minister publicly supported these recommendations.
But Michael Koplovsky from the US Embassy burst his bubble with one sentence: "The US opposes decriminalisation of marijuana use." Other staff members were not so tactful. They stated that if we did any such thing, the US would respond with economic sanctions. So much for 'sovereignty' and 'independence'.
Benjamin Harrison once said, "We Americans have no commission from God to police the world." But that was a campaign speech. Benjamin Disraeli said, "Colonies do not cease to be colonies because they are independent." And he was addressing the House of Commons.
Every year, there are about 2.5 million alcohol-related deaths worldwide, but any adult can walk into a bar and get drunk without committing any offence. Around six million deaths a year are caused by tobacco. But cigarette smoking is legal. I sought help to get the number of deaths from marijuana and could only come up with this: "An exhaustive search of the literature finds no credible reports of deaths induced by marijuana."
Could this be one reason why these anti-drug campaigns are going exactly nowhere?
In my interaction with young persons, I have formed the view that contact with the police for ganja offences is having a negative influence on young people's confidence in the police. Thousands of persons in Jamaica are being damaged by criminal records, risks to jobs, travel and relationships, to a degree that far outweighs any harm that ganja could be doing to the society.
Prison should no longer be penalty for possession of ganja for personal use. The available evidence indicates that removal of jail as a sentencing option would lead to considerable cost savings, without leading to increases in the rates of ganja use.
Reclassification of ganja from being a criminal offence would go a far way in removing much of the friction between the police and communities that currently prevents more cooperative relationships.
We need to accept that ganja has become a part of our culture. Any dangers - if they exist - are magnified by driving its use underground.
Glenn Tucker is an educator and a sociologist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.