US shrouding us in marijuana smoke


Tuesday, September 05, 2017

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I take this opportunity to encourage the Government to take the necessary steps to ensure that the country is not left behind in the rapidly developing marijuana sector.

While I may not be as fascinated by this shade of green, it would be remiss of me, as a representative of the people, not to make it known that, as the country with perhaps some of the best strains and undoubtedly the best platform to market the drug, we are being trumped in the race to earn from the weed.

The Business Insider recently published a report in which it revealed that it is now legal to smoke marijuana in 20 per cent of the United States of America without a doctor's letter. This is a progressive move for the recreational use of marijuana within the USA, and has contributed increasingly to their gross domestic product. It is expected that by the year 2021 the recreational marijuana industry would have made over $2.5 trillion (US$20 billion) in sales.

The matter of age

The amendments made to the Dangerous Drugs Act are on the right path towards transforming and regulating the sector; however, greater liberties must be considered. The Act states that where a person is under the age of 18 years, or who is 18 years or older and “appears” to the police to be dependent on ganja, he/she will be referred to the National Council on Drug Abuse for counselling.

While having the age requirement consistent with the legal age of consent is commendable, I am not convinced that the Jamaica Constabulary Force officers are trained to ascertain accurately if a person is dependent on marijuana based on appearances. This has the potential to become harassing if we ever move in the direction of widespread recreational marijuana usage.

In Alaska, as an example, the age requirement is much higher, at 21 years, for individuals to be eligible to use the drug. Since early 2005, roughly the same time the Dangerous Drug Act amendment took effect, Alaska made it legal to use marijuana for recreational purposes. Users over the age of 21 within Alaska can carry one ounce freely for recreational use.

Our laws have been amended to make the possession of two ounces or less of marijuana an offence which carries a fine — allowing almost twice the weight permitted in Alaska with far more restrictions. If the recreational use of the drug is to be considered, then perhaps we must re-evaluate what quantity individuals can legally carry, or have officers trained properly to identify how to accurately determine a person's dependence on marijuana.

Business opportunities

Herbal Outfitters, a retail marijuana store in Alaska, opened its doors two years after the state made it legal to use the substance recreationally. Their first customer bought seven grammes of marijuana for US$145.65 (approximately $19,000). The store sells various strains of the drug at differing prices.

While the price of marijuana is considerably less in Jamaica than it is in the United States, the earning potential is still massive if the proper measures are established to legalise, tax and regulate the sale as was done in Alaska.

Although California was the first state to legalise medical marijuana in 1996, it has no retail stores and will not until January 2018, when the state will begin to issue licences to dispensaries allowing them to sell marijuana. The 22-year gap is undesirable and hopes are that in our attempt to capitalise on the growing wave of countries legalising the use, we will not have such a lapse in advancing the industry.

In Colorado, for example, the business of selling marijuana retail is saturated. There are more marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks and McDonald's franchises combined. This is partly because they were one of the first states to legalise the recreational use of the drug. The early bird caught the worm.

Washington, the other pioneer state to legalise the recreational use, has raked in over US$1 billion since 2012 across all dispensaries.

Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and California will all have retail stores to sell marijuana by 2018. This will again boost their industries and leave Jamaica further behind on the development of the industry globally.

How much is too much?

Currently, Jamaicans may carry up to two ounces of marijuana without being arrested. As mentioned earlier, states such as Colorado and Alaska permit the possession of one ounce without being in any violation of the law. The drug has been decriminalised within our laws, but, it has been made legal within their states once the weight is an ounce or below.

The questions to be asked, then, must be: Do we need to make the drug legal to use without being ticketed at one ounce? Is the revenue earned from the ticketing of persons thus far substantive?

In Maine, people can legally possess 2.5 ounces of marijuana. That is almost twice the permitted quantity of other states, and 25 per cent higher than the amount permitted to possess without being arrested locally.

In California, the laws are a bit different; a person can “be in possession of a friend's marijuana” also if they are found with more than the permitted amounts.

Too little, too late

We are being left in the smoke of the United States in the advancement of marijuana use, and it might already be too late for us to significantly capitalise on it. We have done too little and, in my opinion, may be too late to stamp our crest on the west as the leaders in the marijuana industry, especially since Canada and Cayman are joining the party.

More US states will begin to ride the wave and, while they are opening more retail shops than fast food chains and coffee houses in some states, and collecting meaningful revenues, we are opening Starbucks and arguing about the impact one store will have on our economy.

They are already far advanced, having individuals now legally licensed to grow the drug and laws to stipulate where and how such cultivation is legal. We have not yet even begun to scratch the surface of this multi-trillion-dollar industry. We have amended laws to distribute $500 tickets, when in the US dispensaries are earning billions per state and single customers are spending the Jamaican equivalent of $20,000 and more per transaction.

If we are serious about having the slightest hope of being competitive in what will soon be an international industry, then we must get the ball rolling. “You neva' see smoke without fire” is how I would best describe the rapid shift in the recreational use of marijuana in the United States. They have seen from Colorado and Washington the burning desire and hot sales of the drug, and one state at a time they are all smoking.

Are we going to wait until Florida joins the line and “puff puff pass” us on the path to earning meaningfully? Or will we make the tough decisions needed to ensure we do not miss out on this industry which has the potential to significantly boost our economy?

Duane Smith is Jamaica Labour Party councillor for the Chancery Hall Division.

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