On September 17, the Bureau of the Heads of Government of the 15-nation Caribbean Community (Caricom) discussed the decriminalisation of marijuana and its production for medicinal purposes.
The discussion was prompted by the prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Dr Ralph Gonsalves who, prior to the meeting, is reported to have said "it is high time" that the matter is addressed "in a sensible, focused, not hysterical manner".
As it turned out, the chairman of the meeting, Trinidad and Tobago's Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, told reporters that the Caricom Secretariat has been given the task "to do research on the medical issues as well as the legislation issues" and a report will be presented to a Heads of Government Conference in February next year.
The discussion was never going to be easy. Apart from the fact that the Bureau could not take decisions on such a sensitive issue for all 15 governments, there would be considerable misgivings on at least four counts. First would be the reaction of the United States Government; second would be fear that decriminalisation of marijuana possession and use, however small, may lead to consumption of harder narcotics such as cocaine; third would be whether Caribbean governments have the resources to regulate and enforce secure production of marijuana for medicinal purposes; and fourth would be the response of Church groups that are instinctively opposed to decriminalisation.
These are the reasons why any further discussion of the issue by Caricom leaders should be informed by a careful and well-researched study. The study should address not only the four concerns identified in the previous paragraph, but also the savings to governments of amending their present policies on marijuana and the revenues that could be earned from the production of cannabis for the global medical market.
But the Caricom Secretariat is already strapped for cash and finding it difficult to deliver on the many mandates it has been given by governments. It is doubtful, therefore, that it has the resources to conduct the intense and meticulous study that is required.
It is also unlikely that the Bureau has authorised a fresh contribution from all governments to fund the study. Further, this is one issue about which there is no point in seeking assistance from donor countries such as the European Union, the US, or Canada.
The Secretariat would do better to get authority from governments to try to raise funds from private sources, such as philanthropist George Soros. Failure to secure adequate funding would result in an unsatisfactory study on which informed decisions could not be made.
Yet, there is considerable merit in the discussion in which Gonsalves wishes Caricom governments to engage.
Writing three years ago in October 2010, I argued that "the Caribbean should legalise the growing of marijuana for medicinal purposes and should end laws that criminalise the use of small quantities for recreational and religious purposes".
I made the point then that there are thousands of people who are criminals because they are, in one way or another, involved in illegally growing, picking, packing and distributing marijuana. Many of them are farmers or people who worked on farms and who have lost markets for their products, such as bananas or citrus, because Caricom countries were deprived of preferential access to the European Union market, resulting from challenges by Latin American countries and the United States encouraged by US corporations that dominated the banana market.
They have turned to the marijuana business, as without it they will not survive. So, they are criminals.
In June 2011, I drew attention to the report of The Global Commission on drugs which declared that "the global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world". The Commission emphasised that "vast expenditures on criminalisation and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption".
It is indeed high time that the Caribbean's policies on marijuana production, use, and decriminalisation be carefully studied and appropriate action taken to amend these policies appropriately in the region's interest and not as a response to pressure from the United States or elsewhere.
This is especially important because, as Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the US Drug Policy Alliance, has pointed out, "20 states in the US have legally regulated marijuana and are reaping the benefits from it".
Two recent studies -- one in the United States and the other in Britain -- again highlight the need for radical change in policies related to marijuana.
A study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research in Britain says that "legalising cannabis could help the Government cut the deficit by up to £1.25 billion (US$2 billion) a year". It also argues that "the dangers of cannabis as a gateway drug, which leads users to try harder drugs, is greatly exaggerated in public discussion".
In the United States, Jeffrey Miron, a senior lecturer at Harvard University who studied the likely impact of drug legalisation, found US$20 billion a year could be available to the coffers of the US at State and Federal levels through saving on law enforcement and the generation of taxes on marijuana.
In the Caribbean, Jamaican chemist and cancer researcher Dr Henry Lowe says that Jamaica could be earning "billions of dollars from the wide range of cosmeceutical, neutraceutical and pharmaceutical products being developed across the world". The same observation holds true for other Caribbean countries.
No one Caribbean government could realistically attempt to change its laws and its stance on marijuana without being subjected to enormous pressure, including the withdrawal of official development assistance from the US and Canada.
These days, such assistance is linked to coast guards and drug interdiction agencies of the region. This is why the governments will have to act together -- no doubt a reality of which Prime Minister Gonsalves is acutely aware. That is why he wisely urged a Caricom-wide approach.
Any study to be presented to Caribbean leaders next February has to be well-funded so that it can be painstakingly researched and thorough. If not, no informed decision can be made and no convincing argument put forward, one way or the other. Getting the study right is the first and necessary hurdle to be cleared.
Sir Ronald Sanders is a consultant, senior research fellow at London University and former Caribbean diplomat
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