Cannabis banking prospects improve; scepticism and stigma remain

Ellen
Campbell Grizzle

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

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The nascent medical cannabis business in Jamaica is challenged by limited access to banking facilities. Many of the major banks have asked clients engaged in legal medical cannabis businesses to close their accounts for fear of breaching federal laws in the USA. Further, despite provision in law for researchers to investigate and innovate, projects are being held until financial rules are settled. On top of this structural barrier, scepticism and stigma perfuse the system.

A sliver of hope

There is a legislative fix on the horizon for banking challenges. It comes in the form of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act of 2019 that was introduced in the US House of Representatives on March 7, 2019. This new Act reached the US House with bipartisan alliance of 138 co-sponsors who support the idea that State-legal cannabis-related businesses need to be able to engage with financial institution and vice versa. The SAFE Banking Act aims to protect banks that service the cannabis industry from being penalised by federal legislators. It must pass the US House by a simple majority (218 of 435) to reach the Senate. A successful vote occurred this week in committee. This Act is now better positioned than all its predecessors, but it is a long way off from becoming law.

Jamaicans in the medical cannabis sector can take encouragement from this new move even if, at this time, it does not affect directly our situation. However, we know that regulatory decisions in Jamaica are influenced by the USA. This news may prompt some action. Unfortunately, solving the banking issue will not reduce the ingrained stigma problem in Jamaica that is a stumbling block to so many innovative ideas.

Rays of sunshine

There are other international rays of sunshine. Since this year, the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have signalled several changes that will open the doors for more research and clinical trials. Experts at the UN have recommended that cannabis and its key components be rescheduled under International Drug Treaties. The WHO is calling for whole-plant cannabis, as well as cannabis resin, to be removed from Schedule IV — the most restrictive category of a 1961 drug convention to which Jamaica is a signatory. WHO is also re-emphasising that cannabidiol and CBD-focused preparations containing no more than 0.2 per cent THC are “not under international control” at all. The European Parliament is supporting the WHO stance. This should translate to greater freedom for scientists to develop and market medicines from ganja isolates with very small levels of CBD.

Breaking the chains of sceptism and stigma

Many of the impediments that countries have designed to control medical cannabis will become unnecessary once the UN, WHO and USA change their stance. Scientific discoveries are driving these changes. Therapies made from cannabis will represent the high end of the business. Ironically, as a forerunner in the medical cannabis space, Jamaica's progress is stymied by stigma and scepticism. One reputational issue is that, globally and locally, Jamaica is still viewed as a “weed-smoking country that can export unique raw material for this industry, now legally, to the world.” Our abilities to engage in the discovery and manufacturing of high-end medicines remain in doubt. So, I think that it is time to focus on the repositioning of the Jamaican cannabis industry so as to persuade local and international doubters of the world-class capacities and abilities that reside in this island. Regrettably, in these matters, colonial thinking still shackles our minds. When the restraints come off in the medical cannabis industry we must be ready to seize the commanding heights. Among other things, we need a smart science-based public education campaign to reduce scepticism and stigma caused by myths and ignorance pervading the higher echelons of our country.

Ellen Campbell Grizzle PhD, RPh, is associate professor and the focal point of the University of Technology, Jamaica Medical Cannabis Enterprise. Send comments to the Observer or Ellen.Grizzle@utech.edu.jm.


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