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Jamaican ganja — the race against time

Three-day conference at UWI will tell law-makers opportunities slipping away

BY DESMOND ALLEN executive editor - special assignment allend@jamaicaobserver

Thursday, May 22, 2014    

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JAMAICA is already over 40 years behind in decriminalisation of ganja and a three-day conference which kicks off today at the University of the West Indies (UWI) will signal to legislators here that time is not on Jamaica's side.

"We are 40 years late," said Dr Albert Lockhart, a leading opthalmologist who helped pioneer marijuana derived medicines such as Canasol for treating glaucoma, the eye disease and Asmasol for asthma sufferers.

Lockhart, and the late Dr Manley West of the UWI intensified medical research on ganja in 1972 after then Health Minister Dr Kenneth McNeill invited them to address parliamentarians on their work and gave them permission to collect, transport and do research on the weed within the bounds of Jamaica.

The duo produced five drugs, starting with Canasol in 1976. When they saw the potential for greater success, they partnered with the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica (PCJ) which was being run by the visionary William Saunders to form a commercial enterprise called AMPEC, a combination of the names Albert, Manley and Petroleum Corporation. In 1987, they produced Asmasol.

"We have other drugs that are not yet registered because registration is very expensive," Lockhart said in an interview with the Jamaica Observer, adding that the selling agents in Jamaica for AMPEC is Health Brands Limited.

Lockhart argued that Jamaica should have been much farther ahead in production of ganja for medicinal purposes but that the ball was dropped after the 1972 parliamentary committee breakthrough.

Science Minister Phillip Paulwell assured ganja advocates that decriminalisation of the weed would come this year but while the legal fine-tuning is being done, the rest of the world, led by a fast growing number of American states, is racing to decriminalise cannabis. Colorado, first out of the block with legalisation, is reporting millions of dollars in taxes raised from rapid sales of the weed, boosted by apparently successful treatment of children with epilepsy.

Jamaica is said to have an advantage because the island is well known across the world for ganja, popularised by Rastafarian entertainers like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. But decriminalisation is at risk of coming "too little too late", advocates say.

Lockhart said: "What you are hearing now we were saying 40 years ago. Manley and I discovered that THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) -- the property which gives the high -- was not the only active ingredient in ganja and that there were several other compounds which could be extracted for good use."

He said Canasol changed the thinking of many persons about glaucoma when it hit the market. The drug gained favour with glaucoma sufferers because, unlike other drugs, it protected the optic nerve, while lowering eye pressure.

"Our research found that when ganja was smoked it increased blood flow into the eye. That put us on to Canasol. We had to produce an eye drop because we don't promote smoking," Lockhart disclosed. "Anything smoked opens the smoker to cancer of the lips, throat and lungs," he noted. "Smoking of tobacco can cause heart problems."

He described ganja as "one of the most misunderstood and most maligned drugs", saying: "If you do brain scans on ganja smokers, you will see changes but these changes are temporary, whereas with the use of tobacco and alcohol there is permanent damage to organs."

Lockhart told the Observer that there were ways of benefitting from ganja without smoking. But he noted that the use of a chillum pipe in which water extracts the smoke before it gets to the lungs, was preferable.

Commenting on the misconception that all ganja was the same, the opthalmologist said it used to be thought that THC was the only active compound in ganja and that the Mexican herb was the prototype. But his work had shown that there were different types of ganja and that strains grown under different conditions could produce a different chemistry.He suggsted that the production of ganja in Jamaica should remain in the communities.

"Jamaica will be a boutique place for people to come to get ganja. Jamaicans know more about ganja that Dr Sanjay Gupta," he said, referring to the health editor of US news network CNN whose expose on marijuana opened many eyes to its medicinal uses.

But Lockhart said Jamaica was at risk of "missing the boat", because: "All the big countries are going to be ahead of us and we could end up importing ganja products, if we keep stalling. Jamaica has the potential to be ahead because of the brand which is akin to Blue Mountain Coffee.. We might not be the biggest producer but we can be the best."

Concern about Jamaica's tardines in moving ahead has spurred the Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Research Task Force to stage the inaugural Jamaica Cannabis Conference beginning today and ending Saturday at the UWI Campus under the theme: "Wake up Jamaica, Our Opportunities are slipping away".

To add fire power to their efforts, the task force, in association with the UWI, has brought two top leaders in the Israeli cannabis community to Jamaica as guests of the conference. They are Dr Michael Dor, chief medical advisor to the Israeli Ministry of Health Medical Cannabis Unit and Dr Lumir Hanus, a research fellow in Medicinal Chemistry and Natural Products at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a major authority on medical cannabis. They are being sponsored by Strains of Hope and will speak at the Friday session between 10:00 am and 5:00 pm at the Faculty of Law, Seminar Room, UWI.

Task force director, Delano Seiveright said the main outcome expected from the conference is a position paper and declaration "setting out a roadmap and a recommended timeframe for the decrimalisation of ganja, including its use for sacramental rights of Rastafarians and its wider medicinal uses".

The Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Research Task Force is an umbrella group launched in September 2013 and is chaired by Professor Archie McDonald, principal of the UWI Mona which last month signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with GenCanna Global, Inc, trading as Strains of Hope, to facilitate the conduct of research into the medicinal properties of ganja. McDonald inked the deal on behalf of UWI amd Josh Stanley for Strains of Hope.

The task force has also launched a Ganja Future Growers and Producers Association to spearhead development of a viable ganja industry in Jamaica.

Several other speakers from Jamaica , the United States and Canada will also participate in the three-day Inaugural Jamaica Cannabis Conference.

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