By Suzette A. Haughton, lecturer, Department of Government at The University of the West Indies and 2002 Americas Project fellow
Governments of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) have called for a discussion on the decriminalization of marijuana after a pilot study found that legalized medical marijuana sales could boost the region’s ailing economies. As a result, the topic was an important agenda item at a CARICOM Inter-Sessional Heads of State Summit held in March 2014. Two aspects of decriminalization were discussed: decriminalization for medical use and decriminalization for recreational use.
After much discussion, summit participants opted to commission a comprehensive study on marijuana use. While supportive of decriminalization for medical purposes, concerns were raised by some leaders about the effects of prolonged marijuana use on mental health. The findings of this comprehensive study are expected to be discussed at the July 2014 CARICOM Summit to be held in Antigua.
In February 2014, two prominent Jamaican politicians also weighed in on the marijuana decriminalization debate. One claimed that in light of the legalization efforts in other countries, the government of Jamaica would be reviewing its marijuana prohibition laws. The other claimed that Jamaica’s decriminalization of marijuana could be in effect before January 2015.
One important step toward harnessing the potential financial benefit of medical marijuana once it is decriminalized in Jamaica has been taken by a medical scientist. In December 2013, Jamaica’s first medical marijuana company, Medicanja, was established. Medicanja was formed by a prominent Jamaican scientist who has long researched the medicinal benefits of marijuana. Among other things, this scientist has indicated that drugs developed from marijuana could be used to treat severe pain and psychosis. There are plans to list Medicanja on the Jamaica Stock Exchange.
Generally, public opinion in Jamaica is supportive of the decriminalization of marijuana — at the very least, for medicinal purposes. There are also those who believe it should be fully legalized to support the human rights of the minority Rastafarian community. However, Christian groups in Jamaica are opposed to marijuana use because of its perceived association to moral decay in society. In St. Lucia, too, there is an active group advocating for the legalization of marijuana, but in March 2014, a prominent St. Lucian politician disparaged the decriminalization of marijuana.
The growing call for decriminalization in other parts of the Western hemisphere has provided an impetus for decriminalization and for legalization advocates in the Caribbean to act. In December 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the growth, sale and consumption of marijuana. This unprecedented move has fanned the flames of hope for legalization advocates in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean — in spite of the condemnation of Uruguay’s actions by the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board, which monitors countries’ compliance to international drug treaty obligations.
Individual states in the United States have also opted to decriminalize marijuana. In November 2012, both Washington and Colorado passed laws to allow recreational marijuana use. Further, 20 states in the U.S. have decriminalized marijuana for medical use.
Jamaica — and many of the Anglophone Caribbean states — will be cautious about full legalization because such a decision would violate their international drug treaty obligations. The Convention Against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances prohibits the sale and trafficking of marijuana, as well as other drugs with similar effects. It also controls mind-altering substances. It mandates states to cooperate internationally, regionally and bilaterally to fight against the trafficking of illicit drugs. Since marijuana is included in the international drug prohibition regime and to uphold its treaty commitments, Caribbean states will be careful not to move swiftly to legalization. However, decriminalization of marijuana for medical use remains a strong possibility due to its anticipated financial and health benefits; the spirit of the Convention was never intended to discriminate against the scientific and medical use of drugs but rather to suppress the sale and trafficking of drugs and to confiscate assets derived from illicit drug trafficking.
Voices of the Americas is a space for Americas Project fellows to share their insights into events unfolding in their home countries and in the region as a whole. The fellows' essays will also focus on economic development, institution building, democracy and the rule of law.