High grade lessons from Colorado
MARIJUANA has the potential to turn around Jamaica's ailing economy as it did in Colorado, a state with around the same-sized population as the Caribbean island.
Josh Stanley, a US marijuana industry expert, made the declaration at this week's Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange. Stanley is the founder of Strains of Hope, a Colorado-based non-profit organisation aimed at helping people across the region to access cannabis.
Medical marijuana was legalised in Colorado in 2000, but the sector lacked structure for many years. Against that background, lobbyist began pushing for regulation of the state's ganja industry in 2007, a process that involved wide consultations and culminated with legalisation of recreational marijuana in 2012 and the opening of retail stores in January.
"Back in 2007, Colorado was staring at a US$270-million deficit and unemployment was through the roof. We were looking at a hard core recession," Stanley reflected.
"Today we are looking at a surplus. We have replaced the crime and fines with jobs and revenues," he said.
Indeed, Colorado's legal marijuana market is reportedly far exceeding tax expectations. According to the Associated Press, the state made roughly US$2.01 million ($220 million) in marijuana taxes in January. The tax total indicates US$14.02-million worth of recreational pot was sold from 59 businesses. The state collected roughly US$2.01 million in taxes. By comparison, Colorado made about US$2.7 million in liquor excise taxes in January of last year (January 2014 figures were unavailable).
The pot taxes came from 12.9 per cent sales taxes and 15 per cent excise taxes. Including licensing fees and taxes from Colorado's pre-existing medical marijuana industry, the state collected about US$3.5 million from the marijuana industry in January, according to the AP.
Ganja is widely used by Jamaicans, and is said by Rastafarians to be a holy sacrament. But the use of the drug is illegal, for which a person can be fined and jailed. Government has indicated plans to decriminalise the herb later this year, a move expected to pave the way for a medicinal marijuana industry on the island.
Stanley is on the island helping towards the establishment of a regulatory framework for the local industry, having done the same in Colorado.
"If you look on the litmus test, Colorado is your petri dish. So, I am here to help Jamaica step out of puddles that Colorado stepped in which were many," he said, adding "Jamaica has an opportunity... It can truly revive a nation."
The Small Business Association of Jamaica (SBAJ) says the potential for economic benefits from ganja is huge.
"The opportunity for medical ganja and well-regulated sale of ganja in a spiritual context and for a peaceful purpose, is vast. If we did not take this serious, we would be irresponsible," said Dee Kyne, social entrepreneur and co-CEO of the SBAJ.
"Because of its debt trap, Jamaica has had to sell much of the family silver, here we have an opportunity with the family gold," she said.
Marijuana is arguably Jamaica's most famous natural resource, made especially popular by Reggae music and the legendary Bob Marley. A recent US State Department report estimated that 15,000 hectares of marijuana is grown in all 14 parishes of Jamaica, generally in areas inaccessible to vehicular traffic on small plots in mountainous areas and along the tributaries of the Black River in the parish of St Elizabeth.
But the country has a history of not adequately capitalising on valuable natural resources, including bauxite and sugar cane. The island will not repeat past mistakes, says Delano Seiveright, director of the Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Research Taskforce and Ganja Law Reform Coalition.
"I think how we have started the process this time around, compared to bauxite, sugar cane and so on, is different," said Seiveright.
"What we have done is establish a very grass roots, consultative approach. We meet very regularly with members of the Rastafarian community, small businesses, academics etc and everybody put their points across and consult with each other," he continued. "Essentially, we want to get to the point where we have a regulated cannabis industry that takes into account the best interest of Jamaica and give primary (focus) to the small traditional ganja cultivator."
Professor Wendel Abel of the Faculty of Medical Sciences at University of the West Indies and chairman of the National Council for Drug Abuse, noted that beyond the fattening of Government coffers, legalisation of marijuana presents opportunities for persons to be involved in transportation and delivery of the products, marketing and opportunities to operate dispensaries and heath-related facilities.