Hints at ways Ja could avoid punitive measures for ganja
NEW YORK, USA — Instead of belching fire and brimstone, the Obama Administration yesterday appeared to be treading softly on Jamaica's plans to decriminalise ganja.
A key US narcotic agency also hinted at ways the island could avoid punitive measures under US federal law that remain on the books, as the administration turns a blind eye to the quickly growing number of US states that have been decriminalising or legalising marijuana.
In separate statements responding to Jamaica Observer queries, both the State Department and the Department of Justice sidestepped direct comment on how the US would react to decriminalisation of the weed.
"The US respects that different nations have varying approaches on the matter; it is the duty of each nation to determine drug policies that meet its specific needs within the framework of International Laws," the State Department said in its response.
President Barack Obama himself, in a recent interview, downplayed the hazard posed by marijuana, declaring the drug no more dangerous than alcohol and contrasting it with the graver risk presented by "harder drugs" like cocaine and methamphetamine.
But appearing to play it safe, the State Department cautioned: "Under US federal law, marijuana remains a dangerous drug, and is subject to high levels of control with corresponding criminal restrictions on distribution and sale. The United States is committed to upholding its obligations under the United Nations (UN) drug control conventions and to work with international partners to promote the goals of the convention."
As Jamaica has not yet taken the proposed action announced last week by Phillip Paulwell, the leader of Government Business in the House, the State Department said: "We cannot speculate on hypothetical points," when asked how it would affect relations between the two countries.
Paulwell said Cabinet is to decide this year on the decriminalisation of marijuana.
For its part, the Justice Department was only prepared to refer the Observer to existing guidelines on its Marijuana Enforcement Policy, which was upgraded last August after several states, despite federal laws prohibiting ganja, expunged punitive local laws on the use of marijuana.
Colorado became the first state to legalise marijuana, followed shortly after by Washington state. Another 20 states are well on the way to decriminalisation or legalisation, no doubt buoyed by the big tax take -- projected at US$100 million -- that Colorado has reported.
A spokesman for the DOJ's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs unit, acknowledged that "there is a distinction between decriminalisation — which is being proposed by Jamaican authorities — and legalisation".
Specifically, under its Marijuana Enforcement Policy, the DOJ lists eight areas it said federal prosecutors should prioritise. They include the prevention and distribution of marijuana to minors and preventing the revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels.
The Justice Department also noted that jurisdictions that had enacted laws legalising marijuana in some form, implemented strong regulatory and enforcement systems to control cultivation, distribution and possession, and which are in compliance with such laws, "are less likely to threaten the federal priorities of enforcing the federal law".
That was immediately taken as a hint as to how to avoid punitive action by the US.
Decriminalising the use of the drug is seen by Jamaica's ganja lobby as a first step in establishing a vibrant commercial ganja industry, which many believe is worth billions of dollars.
But Diaspora leaders here who have given tacit approval to the move have urged caution because of fears that it could damage relations with the United States.