John Myers Jr, Gleaner Writer
Concerns are being raised that Jamaica might lose out on the economic benefits that could be derived from the commercial production of marijuana due to the reluctance of the Government to decriminalise its use.
The issue has been placed back on the table in the context of the growing acceptance of the benefits of the weed, both economically and medicinally - especially in the United States (US) where 16 states have now legalised its use and an increasing number of countries seeking to tap into its potential.
"It is a multibillion-dollar industry, there are now trade conventions, there are people making tens of millions and hundreds of millions of dollars legally from this industry (and) I am not aware of Jamaicans being at these gatherings, participating in these trade conventions," argued Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, during a Gleaner Editors' Forum at the newspaper's central Kingston offices last Wednesday.
"The real risk here for Jamaica, I think, is that as the rest of the world - the US, Latin America, maybe Canada - begins to move forward very rapidly, Jamaica - who has had a natural competitive advantage and cultural advantage - gets left behind as all the rest of the world moves forward," Nadelmann said, as he emphasised the huge economic potential of producing ganja for medicine and tourism.
Paul Chang, the chairman of the Ganja Law Reform Coalition, insisted at the forum that Jamaica's economy stood to derive significant benefits from commercial ganja production and suggested that Government change its stance from one of prohibition to a tax-regulated control model with education.
"Are we in Jamaica going to sit idly by and see (go to waste) something that is a natural fit for Brand Jamaica - culturally, historically, economically - that is a natural fit to our tourism, especially our small and medium-sized hotels and small farmers (as well as) add serious tax revenues to Government and serious returns in investment to private capital?" he questioned.
But even as the calls grow louder and the arguments supporting the use of ganja get stronger, successive governments in Jamaica have shied away from making it legal to grow and use the weed. It is a widely held view that the Jamaican Government has refrained from legalising ganja over the years out of fear of facing diplomatic pressure from mainly the US, where ironically, an increasing number of its states are now legalising ganja production for medicinal as well as recreational use. The states of Colorado and Washington are the latest, with New York now giving active consideration to legalising ganja for the economic spinoffs.
Huge tax revenue
The state of California, which was the first to make it legal in 1996, collects upwards of US$100 million annually in taxes alone from medical marijuana. The economic benefits to California are considered to be much more when other revenues from the trade are considered.
But Nadelmann, whose organisation has partnered with several local interest groups to step up the pressure on the Government locally, said the US would now not be as keen in maintaining pressure on Jamaica, given the developments taking place there.
"Now is 2013 (and) the White House will not want to deal with this issue," he insisted. "Now that Colorado and Washington have moved forward, public opinion is shifting, Uruguay has moved forward and there is no evidence of pressure from the US government, and the fact that you now have Colorado and Washington state moving forward with legalisation means that the Federal Government and the State Department are not in the same position to intimidate foreign governments on this issue. They don't have the credibility anymore and they know it."
Within the context of a growing acceptance of ganja globally, Nadelmann said: "At this point, I would say it is time in Jamaica not just to discuss the medical piece, religious piece, decriminalisation piece and medical tourism, etc, but to raise the serious discussion about 'would not Jamaica be better off with a system of legal regulation and licensing?'"