Call for Caricom to give ganja green light '

Jamaica moving too slow to cash in on global boom'

BY NAZMA MULLER
Sunday Observer writer
editorial@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, January 21, 2018



OCHO RIOS, St Ann — “Hey, Indian, yuh want some high grade?”

On the streets of Ochi, a spliff can cost anywhere between J$50 and US$10 — depending on who's buying, who's selling, and the grade of the ganja. Each week a new cruise ship arrives with thousands of potential customers for the many young men hustling the herb on the streets of this North Coast town. This isn't how it was supposed to be. Very soon it will be three years since the Dangerous Drugs Act was amended to 'llow de herb'. The euphoria of that victory has long since subsided, and although possession of up to two ounces is no longer a criminal offence, the much-anticipated “green rush” that was supposed to take the Jamaican economy out of its stupor and into prosperity just isn't happening.

Perhaps it is time to take the fight to another level, says Ras Iyah V, a champion of the movement to bring justice to the grass-roots people who suffered the most for the herb over the last 50 years. He wears many hats for the cause: he is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cannabis Licensing Authority, former chairman of the Westmoreland Hemp and Ganja Farmers Association, and the former chair and founding member of the National Coalition of Grassroots Ganja Farmers and Producers Association. He was invited to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) in 2016 where he addressed three different sessions. He is also the co-chair of the Rastafari Nyabinghi Administrative Council and the founder of the Rastafari RootzFest, Jamaica's first ganja-exempt event under the Dangerous Drugs Act Amendment 2015.

“It is only through unity that grass-roots people can have a voice,” he says. “I agree that it's going slowly but, on the other hand, Jamaica is in a very unique position as it's viewed not just as a trans-shipment point, like Haiti or The Bahamas, but as a producer. It is viewed more seriously. Unlike Canada and Israel, we have to consider the race question as well. Often we miss the race element in these things.”

The Rastafari elder pointed out that European-American imperialism has put a lot of pressure on developing countries over ganja, yet in 29 US states it is legal for medical use. Even the Jamaica Government cannot even mention the word recreational; they have to say medical only so as not to contravene UN conventions and treaties about cannabis. International sanctions await Jamaica and the other Caribbean countries who don't adhere to the guidelines laid down by the UN and its watchdog, the International Narcotics Control Board.

“I have often said to the Jamaican Government that we need to align ourselves with the other Caribbean countries and South America,” Ras Iyah V said. “I was at the United Nations in 2016 and there were a lot of South American countries there who have different sacred plants and because of colonialism and colonial thinking, they are not using them. We need to come together with other South American countries and represent our point of view, because we cannot just sit by and accept everything given to us. I am speaking specifically of ganja. We are going slowly while Australia is looking to become the world's largest producer of medical marijuana. And none of them has the brand that Jamaica has.”

He noted that Caribbean politicians are also very fearful, as are the banking associations, about the backlash that could come from the US. Iyah V maintains that Jamaicans have to be realistic in terms of the Government being able to do certain things, and the Jamaican people would have to be prepared to ban their bellies for a few years and make some sacrifices if they want to benefit from the ganja industry. “I'm talking about the region,” he said. “America dictates a lot of things to us. How can we come out of this grip that America has on the region? In terms of trade, migration, everything is to the US. We're in a sticky situation, to be honest. Anything I suggest as an individual, I have to think of the country's well-being. We don't want to do something that will have a detrimental economic impact on the region, in terms of foreign policy or breaking international treaties and conventions. But we just cannot sit by and let the situation go on as it is.

“As a region, we have to make our voices be heard, accepting what opportunities are there now, and continue to agitate for that which we as a region want. I think we will get a lot of support actually, especially from European countries. Next step is for the Caribbean countries to unite and then align with South America. These are the things that the politicians need to sit and work out. Determine our own destiny. Our destiny should not be decided by outside forces.”

His stance is similar to that of Douglas Gordon, producer of CanEx Jamaica. The son of Trinidadian businessman Ken Gordon, former chairman of the One Caribbean Media group, Douglas is also the publisher of Ocean Style magazine. The CanEx CEO joined Ras Iyah V in hoping that Caricom will intervene, and has also issued a call for the Government of his native Trinidad and Tobago to wake up and smell the ganja. Gordon saw the green rush that is now sweeping across the globe a long time ago, and was one of the first entrepreneurs in the region to capitalise on Jamaica's brand and readiness to embrace legal ganja.

“The truth is Caricom is an amalgamation of states, and each of the nations should look at the economic impact that cannabis can have on a per capita basis — as indirectly impacting lives on a significant basis,” Gordon said. “So the speed that it's being adopted in Jamaica is a little disappointing. Cannabis has the potential to change lives in significant ways. And that is true of every individual state, as far as I can see. Whether Caricom as a group can do something that is has not done in the past — ie collaborate, this I don't know.”

Every state should be looking seriously at cannabis for social improvement and economic reasons, Gordon says. “This is a product that is not putting people in jeopardy. To not take it on seriously because of a bunch of old, outdated, inaccurate stigmas is just simply not good enough as an excuse. To not avail yourself of the highly documented, intellectual research that demonstrates the efficacy of cannabis from a medical perspective is simply inexcusable.

“From a different perspective, in the context of Jamaica, they don't have the luxury of dragging their heels on this. The people deserve more in terms of a social safety net, better education, better health care, and so on. Unless there is another alternative to providing the kind of economic impact that cannabis can, they just don't have that luxury.”

“There is a lot happening in the root structure. We're not seeing that much activity up top, on the surface, but there is a lot happening behind the scenes, and a lot of people are fleshing out deals and forming partnerships and positioning themselves to get into the market. A lot of joint ventures and strategic partnerships happening, so I think things will move quickly over the next nine to 12 months.”

The first CanEx was held in 2016, and its main objective was to provide a platform for a business-oriented conversation about the industry. Gordon and his team wanted to pull together the different players — from growers and investors to people looking for opportunities, as well as individuals with a view to forming policy based on having an idea of what the economic impact could be. CanEx seeks to facilitate those conversations.

“We have attracted a number of internationally known experts and speakers, all involved in the cannabis industry, and we have seen a lot of tangible results — a lot of deals coming out of CanEx, different transactions and partnerships — so we are quite proud of that,” Gordon said. “A big challenge is identifying who is serious about cannabis in Jamaica, so CanEx allowed different individuals to come together and make deals that would have relevance to not only Jamaica, but the Caribbean and global cannabis landscape.”

If he could speak with T&T's Prime Minister Keith Rowley, who is adamant that legalising or even decriminalising cannabis is not on his Administration's agenda, the first thing Gordon would do is take him and his relevant advisors to a conference or two to sit down with medical professionals, scientists and business people so they can understand that cannabis is not a social experiment, or an excuse to take something that is recreational and put it on the medical market.

“That is the importance of education and being exposed to a vibrant and safe industry,” Gordon said. “I would like to expose them to some of those people. Bring a delegation of individuals who represent a range of interests — from someone who has epilepsy who can speak to results, to a sports superstar who has gone through the devastating effects of being treated with opioids and then finally finding relief in medical cannabis.”

Television actor and cannabis advocate Montel Williams delivered the keynote at the 2017 CanEx Business Conference & Expo on September 1–2 last year at the Montego Bay Convention Centre. Williams was joined by a prolific line-up of speakers for the second annual conference, which included a wide range of experts.

Other speakers included four-time NBA champion John Salleya, as cannabis attorney, Hilary Bricken of BrickenHarris and the Canna Law Group; Michael Minardi, Chairman of Regulate Florida; Dr Uma Dhanabalan of Harvard, a certified cannabis practitioner; Balram Vaswani of Ganja Inc; (which has been granted a retailer's licence by the Cannabis Licensing Authority); Orville Silvera of the Ganja Growers Association; Larissa Bolivar, head of Grow Green Cannabis in Colorado; and Delano Seiveright, Special Advisor to Ministry of Tourism and Director of the Cannabis Licensing Authority.

Williams, who has multiple sclerosis, has been an outspoken advocate for the use of cannabis in treating the autoimmune disease. He is one of the pioneers who used his influence and celebrity to drive awareness and educate the public about the healing and medicinal properties of cannabis. Williams recently launched a line of high-quality, user-friendly marijuana products.

The cannabis industry is arguably the fastest-growing global economic opportunity. But more key than the substantial economic benefits is the fact that it holds the real possibility of medical treatment and relief for a wide array of ailments and a natural, effective and safe method to treat pain. The present opioid epidemic impacting the US is just one sign of the urgency of action for the industry to move forward.

Gordon concluded: “In 2015, Colorado received US$115 million in tax from revenues from cannabis. I would like them to hear from people from small businesses in Colorado and hear that the economic impact of the industry was US$2.5 billion with 16,000 jobs created. I would like them to hear from people with real world experience of a professional, organised and successful industry. It's no good to turn up your nose and look to the skies because you think it's not socially progressive for a developing country to be involved in cannabis. It's literally time to take the blinkers off our eyes and understand how this works for the benefits of the people.”

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