I admit it: Jamaica importing cannabis from Canada to introduce to the Jamaican market does sound bizarre. But, in a world where global trade is essential for development, the issue isn't really about Jamaica importing cannabis. The uproar reflects the deep dissatisfaction with our inability to create more revenue opportunities from our own resources.
The new medical cannabis industry provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — economic enablement with social development. It's what attracted a rush of foreign direct investments to the island between 2015 and 2018. With its unique brand position, Jamaica has the capacity to own a segment of the global medical cannabis industry thanks to its strong cultural influence through reggae and Rastafari. But the opportunities have been scarce, and the process sometimes painful. So, for the public to hear that Jamaica is importing cannabis from Canada, which does not allow imports of commercial quantities in its own country, has left many feeling dispirited.
It's important to note Jamaica has been actively exporting cannabis since 2018 with more than 200 export permits granted for approximately 10 countries for both cannabis flower and oil. So, generally, Jamaica's medical cannabis trade has been reciprocal. The emotional spark, however, is the fact that Canada only permits small import quantities for research, testing or start-up material. It does not allow commercial-quantity imports in order to protect its own industry.
In addition, the theory of Canada offloading cannabis in Jamaica isn't far-fetched. According to cannabis news outlet, MJBizdaily.com, in 2021 Canadian companies were forced to destroy 425 million grams, or 468 tons, of dried cannabis flower due to overproduction and quality concerns. This represented 26 per cent of total production as Canadian companies have been grappling with over-forecasting. Worse yet, another reputable cannabis news outlet, hightimes.com, reports that at the current trend, Canadian cannabis businesses may destroy around 33 per cent of their crop in 2023.
This entire scenario is highlighting the profound frustration of licensed cannabis producers who have been pleading for better growth opportunities and ease of doing business. From first-hand knowledge, the local medical cannabis industry is complex and polarising. A big reason for this is the absence of a national policy and sound strategic direction.
For example, in 2022, Thailand legalised the growing and consumption of cannabis in food and drinks and is establishing itself as a world-class cannabis production and development hub.
Since Jamaica decriminalised cannabis in 2015 for medical, scientific, and therapeutic purposes, we have not taken the next step of developing a national policy. This policy must come through Cabinet and should outline the vision of the industry, how it will achieve its objectives, and the role of each ministry and their agencies.
This missing policy has paved the way for subjective interpretation of the laws and stagnant policies by stakeholders who do not prioritise the industry.
During my tenure as chairman of the Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA), the lack of this strategic vision for the industry was addressed early. The board established a strategic vision built on three pillars:
i) economic enablement by expanding the market;
ii) cannabis as a contributor to good public health through the nutraceutical industry; and
iii) greater social equity through better small farmer inclusion.
The third was already in train via the cultivator's transitional (special) permit when I was appointed chairman in January 2021. The previous two pillars, however, require a central government approach to be successful.
Earlier, I mentioned the unique opportunity the medical cannabis industry provides for economic and social development. Here are two sectors that can make this possible:
• Nutraceuticals — The future of the medical cannabis industry is in nutraceuticals. These are capsules, oils, skin creams, edibles, etc, that contain the chemical compounds of cannabis that can be used to treat ailments ranging from nausea to eczema. By providing an alternate consumption method to smoking, nutraceuticals will appeal to a wider market and can attract greater revenues. Since cannabis has been shown to treat multiple ailments, this approach to the industry can positively impact public health and gross domestic product (GDP) if done right.
• Wellness tourism — Wellness tourism is a fast-growing sector of the global travel industry that was valued at more than US$800 billion last year. With Jamaica's attractive tourism product and effective marketing machinery, cannabis-inspired experiences could be one of the options to the Government's Destination Assurance initiative. Curated experiences built around an immersion in Jamaica's authentic ganja culture could include CBD oil spa treatments from traditional healers, a farm-to-table concept with cannabis-infused dishes (you can eat cannabis without getting high), and guided tours of Rastafari sacramental farms. An experience like this is something no other country can do the way Jamaica can. In the long run, we can unlock the potential of wellness travel to create new revenue streams while empowering people at the grass roots of the industry.
I reiterate, these suggestions require an all-of-Government approach to make them happen. Policies need to be drafted, laws need to be amended, and ownership of the industry must be at Cabinet level. The natural health products policy, which has been a work-in-progress since 2018, is a key document that requires attention. Standards also need to be established around packaging, labelling, and dosing of cannabis products.
Ideally, we could have a thriving industry in which locally-made nutraceutical products are available in the herb houses, pharmacies and wellness stores, and are also being exported. We could create better inclusivity and economic opportunities for small farmers and Rastafari to recognise their pioneering work on which today's industry now stands. We should also have a national education campaign that demystifies cannabis and informs the public of the health benefits, the health risks, and the opportunities the plant provides for society.
If these things are in place and people see a greater possibility of the Jamaican cannabis industry achieving its potential, the news of a local company importing cannabis from Canada will be less haunting.
LeVaughn Flynn is a medical cannabis advocate and past chairman of the Cannabis Licensing Authority of Jamaica.