Ian Boyne, Columnist
I could entertain the decriminalisation of ganja, though I support no form of smoking. This week marks 30 years since the death of my dearly beloved and deeply missed mother, one of the multiple millions of lives claimed by the tobacco industry. If cigarettes can be legal, why should it be criminalised?
I celebrate the fact that through legislative action, thousands of youth whose present opportunities and future prospects were darkened because of a criminal conviction can now have that record expunged. The bill recently tabled in Parliament still has ganja as an offence, though one that would be ticketable, like traffic violations. So even with decriminalisation, it would still not be on par with cigarette smoking. Only Rastafarians who use 'herb' as part of their religious sacrament would be exempted.
The Medical Association of Jamaica and the National Council on Drug Abuse have come out against decriminalisation and have raised the issue of the dangers of ganja smoking, while supporting the expungement of criminal records and using ganja for medicinal and religious purposes.
What we clearly need is a public dialogue on the science surrounding ganja smoking. If you listen to some of the ganja enthusiasts, you would think the debate on the dangers of ganja smoking has been settled and there is full consensus, except for fringe elements, that it is harmless. That is absolutely not so. And because we are a people not steeped in science, but rather superstition and hearsay, we are susceptible to anecdotal 'evidence' on this sensitive issue ("I know many people who smoke ganja and nutten nuh happen to dem").
As I pointed out recently, ganja research guru Dr Henry Lowe and his colleague, Dr Errol Morrison, in their recently published and empirically rich book Ganja: The Jamaican and Local Connection, have pointed to research that shows the harm ganja smoking can cause. They note: "Scientific evidence continues to support the fact that though many believe cannabis is relatively safe, there may be some potentially harmful effects associated with its long-term use ... . Psychosis has long been known to be an effect, but recent studies have further explored the relationship in depth."
They state further: "Cannabis use has been assessed by several studies to be connected with the development of anxiety, psychosis, and depression ... . Legislation activists and many marijuana users believe smoking marijuana has no negative effects, even though scientific research indicates that marijuana use can cause many different health problems."
The book cites University of Leicester researchers who, in the journal Chemical Research in Toxology, found "convincing evidence" that ganja smoke damages DNA and could potentially increase the risk of cancer development in humans. And reference is made to a January 2009 edition of the Journal of Psychiatric Research, which asserts that adolescents and young adults who are heavy users of marijuana are more likely than non-users to have disrupted brain development. And while many have been enthusiastically quoting Dr Sanjay Gupta's CNN documentaries on ganja, they have not been quoting him, warning about the dangers of young people's smoking ganja.
In an interview with Business Insider, Dr Gupta was asked, "Does smoking hurt your memory, or is it a myth?" In answering this, the myth-busting CNN medical expert said: "It seems to affect everybody in the short term. But it has more of a long-term effect on people who use it while the brain is still developing (roughly anyone under the age of 25)." The ganja advocates and their imported experts and lobbyists have not been quoting these things. They are only talking about how backward Jamaica is in not pushing ahead with decriminalisation.
UP IN SMOKE
Gupta was further asked by Business Insider about the long-term negative effects of consistent recreational use of ganja. His reply: "I think that in the developing brain — which neuroscience says is below the age of 25 — I have concerns about consistent marijuana use."
A large percentage of Jamaican ganja smokers are below 25. They have a right to scientific data about the harmful effects of their habit. We can't afford to be cavalier about a drug that impairs the cognitive faculties of our youth — our future. We can't watch as our future literally goes up in smoke.
And don't talk nonsense about 'scaring people' or about being 'alarmist'. Let's debate the science of this thing. Let's deal with empirical facts, not cultural and religious (Rastafarian) mythology about the spiritual benefits of ganja smoking.
And this issue of exempting Rastafarians from any offence and treating them differently from the rest of us is problematic. How far does the State go in facilitating religious exceptionalism? What about the religious rights of Mormons whose scriptures still exalt polygamy, but who, because of American state action, cannot practise their theology - which their founders did? It is only because polygamy is illegal in their homeland, America, why the Mormons have been forced to adjust their teaching. America could have exempted them, citing its revered constitutional protection of religious liberty?
What if a boy in a school in a volatile community - or any school for that matter - decides to carry a weapon to school? What if he tells his teacher that this is part of his religious dogma, which requires all male members to carry that weapon? Should the State facilitate his religious rights? Ridiculous? Well, you need to learn a little comparative religion.
It is actually a part of Sikh religious doctrine that all male members carry a kirpan - a dagger or a sword - as a sign of religious devotion. So if we have Sikh devotees here, should we make an exception to the Ministry of Education's code to facilitate their religion? What about those Eastern and New Age religious groups that use hard drugs as part of their religious rituals?
Everyone should be equal under the law. Religious people — including Christians - should not have special rights. Don't tell me about Christians and their wine in communion. First, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that moderate alcohol intake is harmful. Absolutely none. In fact, scientific evidence shows that moderate drinking of wine is good for heart health. (And, incidentally, Jews who use wine as part of their religious and cultural practice have the lowest rates of alcoholism of all ethnic groups.)
Will there be some assurance that young people under 25 won't have access to weed at these Rastafarian worship sessions where man burn herb? And who will supply them? If you say it's part of their religious rights to have herb, you can't prosecute those who supply them! Or will Government have specially designated herb plantations from which the Rastas must purchase, cutting off the small man from the business?
Let's think these things through. Let's debate them rationally, not viscerally, as we are wont to do in Jamaica. The Raelians reportedly have sex orgies and nudist camps as part of their religion. They encourage teen sex for our extraterrestrial creators like that. Would Jamaica grant them special camps where they can have their sex rituals, the denial of which would make us guilty of suppressing people's religious rights? I don't believe religious people should have special privileges in a secular society.
Justice Minister Mark Golding is a highly rational, very open man who has been even-handed in this debate. He is not supporting ganja smoking and, in fact, believes in funding an education campaign to discourage it. He does not deny the health dangers of ganja smoking and is at one with the Medical Association on this. He is right about not crowding our court system with ganja cases and he is certainly right about full speed ahead with medical marijuana, but we should carefully debate this issue of recreational ganja smoking.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.