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EDITORIAL - Keeping faith on ganja reform

Published:Monday | October 6, 2014 | 10:00 AM

We, too, welcome last week's significant moves by the Government to reform the country's archaic marijuana laws, but want to be assured that the administration still plans to go as far as it promised, including a genuine decriminalisation of the use of ganja. For, on the face of it, that part of the pledge, if people don't pay attention, could be in danger of falling between the cracks.

The most concrete development so far is Parliament's amendment of the criminal records law, broadening the range of convictions for which people can have their records expunged. This includes people who have faced fines of up to J$1,000 on summary convictions for smoking ganja, or having in their possession equipment for its use.

Indeed, we agree with the national security minister that the amendment, especially with relation to its application to ganja, represents a significant bit of "social engineering". For each year, many thousands of mostly poor and mainly inner-city young men are hauled before magistrates to be convicted for possession and/or use of minute amounts of ganja. They carry lifetime criminal records, often to the permanent blight of their social and economic prospects. Not only do these cases block an overburdened legal system, but the process has morphed into reinforcing social stigma against a class of Jamaicans that represents the majority and for whom the use of ganja is a cultural norm.

This bit of social rebalancing, however, is only one element of a reform project that has been decades in the making. Mark Golding, the justice minister, has assured that additional legislation is being drafted to establish a regime for the growth, use and commercial application, including medicinal research and industrial use of marijuana and related plants.

Four decades ago, Jamaican scientists were at the forefront of research on the medicinal use of ganja. They developed a drug for glaucoma, among others. Unfortunately, weak institutional arrangements and the absence of a clear national policy contributed to a lag, reversal even, of these efforts. The upshot - Jamaica lost its advantage of being first and the marketing advantage of the perception of having the world's most potent ganja.

Green economy

This kind of market positioning will not be easy to clawback, especially in the face of a growing awareness of the potential economic and scientific advantage of marijuana, including in the United States, where the drug is now legal in Washington state and Colorado. It is important, in the circumstance, that the authorities move quickly to pass the appropriate laws and establish the regime to help Jamaica extract the economic value of ganja.

But while the economics is critical, it is important that Messrs Golding, Bunting and others do not lose sight of the underlying driver, over many years, of these reforms: the social context of ganja in Jamaica; the fact that it is embraced and used by Jamaicans. Ganja has both statistical and normative legitimacy.

In this regard, it is important that the arrangements under which Jamaicans will be allowed to possess small amounts of ganja for personal use and be free from fear of arrest when they do, be fulfilled. Our officials have been too silent about that bit of proposed regime.

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