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Who will be the Minister of Ganja?

Saturday, February 01, 2014    

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THE great ganja debate in Jamaica is running toe to toe with the rapid developments taking place elsewhere in the cannabis industry all over the world. In fact, it would seem that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon with the move towards decriminalisation of the weed. The prime minister has her hands full as at least four ministries are jostling to take the lead in this process -- the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Technology, Ministry of Tourism, and the Ministry of Agriculture. The Minister of Health seems a bit laid back on this one, and I have no doubt that the Minister of Education, who is never short of pronouncements on any subject under the sun, will be making his voice heard.

Looking down the road, I wonder who will be appointed Minister of Ganja? Certainly not the Deacon Ronnie Thwaites as he is unlikely to want to compromise his priestly obligations. We haven't heard from Damion Crawford, but he is a likely candidate as this portfolio could enrich his entertainment ministry.

Roger Clarke is also a natural front-runner, but he already has a lot under his belt. Perhaps he would recommend his colleague from St Elizabeth, Raymond Pryce, who has chatted up so much on this subject and could end up at last with a Cabinet post. He would want to run with it.

How come we are not hearing much from the minister of health on this subject? Perhaps Dr Ferguson is so consumed with his smoking ban that he knows he has to double up his efforts to keep Jamaica from going up in smoke. Public space or no, the smell of the weed is quite pervasive, and if all goes through as planned, Jamaica will smell high over the next few years.

Phillip Paulwell, who has been credited with the statement "Jamaica will not be left behind", is the most high-profile personality in the Government who has endorsed the ganja thrust, and it is he who has directed the Scientific Research Council (SRC) to draft the legal framework for decriminalising the trade.

Minister of Justice Mark Golding, however, is not to be left out. He has a critical role to play in ensuring that the new laws, if they come, restrict the trade to the use of medical marijuana only. But how that is going to be monitored is beyond me. Perhaps the police will have to bring in a new breathalyser designed to test consumers and smokers who are using the stuff for pleasure or simply for getting a high. Paulwell has promised that the law will come into effect in 2014. Whoever pilots the Bill, and there is no shortage of takers, we could name the Bill after that person. But if the programme fails, be warned that the Bill will be renamed the So and So Memorial Ganja Measure.

And to add to the debate, who will be named Opposition spokesman on ganja? Perhaps a done deal, as Andrew Holness had already predicted "bitter medicine" in 2011.

My bet is that the responsibility will fall right into the lap of the minister of agriculture. It is a growth project, but I was not aware that ganja growing demands such intensive cultivation and care until I came across the article, Ganja -- "The Sacred Herb" in the Insight Guide Jamaica published some years ago by Apa Productions.

It points out that, although ganja literally seems to grow like a weed, proper cultivation methods are expensive and time-consuming. Farmers need to know what variety to plant, and when and where. Seeds are best sown in a nursery before transfer to the field, where they are planted two feet apart. Water is critical and farmers must water every four days. Organic fertilisers such as poultry, bat or goat droppings are best; in fact, one popular variety is known as goat -- its name taken from the droppings used to fertlise it.

Growers must also weed regularly, plant in selected areas to hide the crop from prying eyes, and guard against birds when the crop starts to ripen and sprout. Some stalks reach nine feet before harvesting, at which time the leaves are removed for drying, seeds saved for replanting, and stems cut for making hash oil.

Then I am told that various types are harvested, Burr, Cotton, Lamb's Bread, Bush, Collie, Chocolate Skunk, and Mad, but the Sinsemilla is the strongest variety.

So ganja cultivation is a highly skilled activity and the Ministry of Agriculture and RADA will find the farmers way ahead of them if they try to impose regulations or new planting practices. The trade will set a blistering pace for the agro-parks to follow, unless of course, as a legal instrument, the fugitive ganja is now about to take its place among the hitherto respectable crops like vegetables, horticulture, sugar, bananas, and cassava food crops.

We will not be left behind, claims Paulwell, and according to the experts including the ubiquitous foreign consultants who always turn up to advise what is best for us, employment, exports and income are about to takeoff as we keep up with the well-touted billion-dollar global industry.

But income opportunities are nothing new. Did you know that there are regular ganja tours for visitors to our innocent little island, and this for many years? One of the most popular tours pass through Bob Marley's home village, and similar tours are offered in Negril where Ratsas guide curious and thirsty tourists into the deep bushes where ganja is grown in the raw.

The industrious guide will tell you that this one is for ladies, this one for the men (ahem), and describe all the mystical properties using the Bob Marley name — we are told that his favourite plant was the sensimilla — to induce smoking and purchasing.

There is a travel website that boasts: "After you smoke a spliff with us and we get to know you we will take you on the best ganja tours in Jamaica and you'll smoke (or eat if you like) so much ganja that you'll be talking to Bob Marley himself."

Well, we are almost there. A growers' and producers' association has been formed. Stakeholders include the Ganja Reform Committee, the SRC, the Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Research Task Force, the Jamaica Agricultural Society — so Roger does have his foot in it — the universities, farmers, chatterboxes, politicians, and other advocates.

It's a strong lobby, but I confess I have my strong reservations about going the whole hog. In fact, Jamaica is a religious country and, in spite of the relative silence of the Church in this matter, many of us still bristle at the thought of legalisation. The silent majority? Those who have seen their relatives affected by the weed will have second thoughts.

Welcome to the medical advantages and Dr Henry Lowe's invaluable contributions, but the big issue is, how do you restrict it to medical use when smokers all over the country are already salivating over the prospect of 'free up the weed'. And what is the value to the small farmer when it's legalised and made easily available to all?

The debate continues. One thing is sure: ganja will never be the same again. And by the away, who is your choice for the Minister of Ganja?

Lance Neita is a public relations and communications specialist. Comments to the Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com

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