None but ourselves can 'free' the weed


Sunday, July 05, 2015

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WITH the announcement — and then postponement — of the Ewarton Rastafarian Community/St Catherine Ganja Growers & Producers Association Ganja/Herbal Festival, I can't help but think about the future of the proposed ganja industry in Jamaica.

The Ewarton Rastafarian community and the ordinary ganja growers alike have decided to celebrate the new "freedom" granted to a group that has, for years, been persecuted for using a plant that they hold dearly in their religious practices. The ganja plant has also been very much celebrated among the ordinary "bald head" youth in Jamaica and it is no wonder they too are delighted at the recent changes in the laws treating with possession of the herb.

Fuel has also been added to this excitement with the recent advice from the Minister of National Security Peter Buting with respect to how members of the police force should "turn a blind eye" to people smoking a spliff or found in possession of less than two ounces of ganja -- that is until the regulatory framework is up and running. Despite this and other previously unfathomable events in recent times concerning ganja use in Jamaica, I enter this epoch in our national development with great excitement, but also with much trepidation.

That particular pronouncement by the minister gives the feeling that we are at a critical juncture -- a "now, what?" moment with this recently acquired "freedom". If one should apply Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom theory to this new-found liberty, we ought to expect that Jamaica will soon be reaping the benefits of not only industrial development in ganja, but also consequently a new level of human advancement for its people.

In looking more closely on this freedom, one also has to examine the gains that should now come from the available productive hours of the many young men and women -- yes, women -- who would have been otherwise detained for days, and possibly even years (as in the recently publicised case of Delroy McIntosh from Savanna-la-Mar) for possession of a minuscule amount of ganja. These people are now "free" from criminal prosecution and detention if caught with two ounces or less, if they pay the required fine within the specified time. The potency of the ramifications for failure to pay this small fine is a whole different debate, and perhaps for another time.

Another benefit of this freedom is the ability for small traditional ganja farmers to benefit from the creation of the Jamaican medical ganja industry. Both major universities in Jamaica (University of the West Indies and University of Technology) have been granted licences to conduct research on ganja for medicinal purposes, with the minister of science, technology, energy and mining even going as far as to advise the institutions to contract the services of the traditional small ganja farmers where necessary. This signals a potential area for development for these farmers and their families.

Within the ambit of this pending freedom to use ganja for medicinal purposes there also exists great potential to establish nutraceutical and therapeutic establishments which will likewise provide scope for the development of non-traditional medical practitioners (aka herbalists).

The recent legislative amendment also makes way for the development of a hemp sector that should see the production of cloth, paper and other products and it is hoped that the result of this would be greater employment for Jamaicans as well as increased exposure for those small businesses that are currently using this particular plant to create such goods. This is one of the main reasons that organisers in several parishes, such as St Catherine, are making strides to implement plans to stage 'herbal festivals' across the island in order to provide that much-needed exposure or 'big up' what so many small businesses crave in this time of economic drought.

Even on the grounds of religion, there is scope for development as the Rastafarian community can now grow and possibly trade ganja among the various houses for sacrament in worship and other religious celebrations. No longer would it only be the Roman Catholic chalice that can be lawfully shared among brethren, but also the Rasta 'cutchie'. What a lovely image of Jamaica's religious freedom! This may very well create the need for a thriving 'cutchie' pipe-building industry and, of course, sufficient sacramental ganja to supply worship sessions.

Alas, there are severe limitations to the realisation of this freedom, issues that will indeed stymie the road to development through the ganja industry. One of those limitations has been consistently highlighted in several articles in the print media recently, and that is with respect to random drug-testing by employers. One noted attorney was moved to remind our citizens that ganja remains illegal and that companies therefore remain within their right to deny employment if ganja-use was detected during these tests. Hence, while not constrained by the issue of a criminal record and detention, like before, people need to be mindful that they can still be blocked from the productivity of this country due to failure to pass a drug test from their employer, as was the case even before possession of small quantities of ganja was decriminalised. The semantic distinction between 'legalised' and 'decriminalised', therefore, needs to be thoroughly and consistently addressed for the public's understanding.

Additionally, the traditional small ganja farmers who were accustomed to clandestinely working their fields, in an environment that was barren with respect to a legal or policy framework for lawful industry, will now be required to adhere to strict regulations and stipulations in order to supply the research institutions that have been granted licences. Similarly, they will also be required to invest heavily in the technology necessary for this process such as for tracking outputs. This will obviously require substantial financial outlay and is likely to prevent a large number of these farmers from taking advantage of this avenue for development.

The issue of landownership in this country is also intimately tied to the ability of farmers to participate in the supply chain for the burgeoning medical ganja sector. This is because it is commonly held that a number of our ganja farmers are, in fact, using government lands for their agriculture without a lease or licence to do so. These ganja farmers will, therefore, be precluded from going to financial institutions to seek capital investment in a new industry, thus restraining their "freedom" of entry until their legal status, with respect to the use of farmlands, can be regularised.

The current difficulties being encountered by the festival organisers to access sponsorship for the upcoming inaugural Herbal/Ganja Festival is indicative of the stigma that is still firmly attached to ganja users in the hearts and minds of so many Jamaicans in power. Many in the business community are still reluctant to be associated with any event thought to 'loud up' the use of what they believe to be a wholly illegal substance, despite the diversity of practical and potentially lucrative uses for this innocuous plant. All this despite years of dialogue, knowledge-sharing, and advocacy from eminent people like the late Professor Barry Chevannes.

Added to this is the sense that there are some powerful private sector interests (both local and foreign) hovering in the background waiting to displace the potential development of the small traditional ganja businesses whose owners have in most cases sacrificed their lives and reputations to gain this "freedom". Alas, we press forward confident in the change that is looming on the horizon.

In the final analysis, it can only be hoped that this new-found freedom to engage in the business of ganja and to sacramentally pass the 'cutchie' to our brethren will not be further inhibited by retention of the illegal status of the plant. We must recognise the critical importance of the development of a road map to sustainably develop the ganja industry via proper regulation and full legalisation. This is the only way for us to achieve freedom in its truest sense.

Vicki Hanson is a PhD candidate in public policy at the Department of Government, University of the West Indies, Mona, and a ganja reform lobbyist. She is also a member of the Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Research Task force (CCMRT) and a committee member of Ganja (Future) Growers & Producers Association. Send comments to:

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