Though many have the perception that Jamaica is all about free-flowing cannabis, that’s not officially the case. It’s true that the country’s tropical climate and fertile soil provide perfect conditions to grow ganja, and that reggae music and Rastafarian religious practices exalt the herb. But Jamaica’s government has opposed its use throughout most of the country’s history.
Cannabis was originally brought to Jamaica by East Indian laborers (who called it ganja) in the mid-1800s. By the 1930s, the plant had become widely used in the culture and a foundation of Rastafarian religious practices, even though the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1913 (a.k.a. the Ganja Law) made possession, cultivation and trafficking of marijuana illegal, with harsh prison sentences for violators.
Cultural perceptions became more permissive in the 1960s and 1970s, especially as Rastafarian and outspoken spliff-lover Bob Marley became Jamaica’s best-known citizen abroad, his music bringing the island nation’s culture to the world. But with Jamaica becoming a major exporter of ganja to Europe and North America, officials rejected attempts to relax the laws, for fear of violating international treaties.
It wasn’t until 2015 that the Dangerous Drugs Act was amended to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis for personal use. Now, possession of up to two ounces is a petty offense, and cultivation of five or fewer plants per household is legal. Adult Rastafarians are permitted to use cannabis for religious purposes. The 2015 amendment also made medical cannabis legal and created the Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA), which is responsible for regulating cultivation and distribution.
There is still a precarious relationship between the herb-smoking public and the police. Some officers turn a blind eye to cannabis possession (under the new law, it’s a petty offense with a fine of J$500, about US$4, more than three times Jamaica’s hourly minimum wage), but others have resisted the change or are fighting ganja with renewed vigor.
In the meantime, the CLA is working to establish and regulate Jamaica’s legal ganja and hemp industries, including all matters related to cultivation, transportation, processing, retail, and research and development, each of which requires a license. The authority has designed a closed-loop medicinal system, in which each licensee is required to conduct transactions only with other licensees. This requires applicants who’ve been granted licenses to agree to business terms amongst themselves, and advise the CLA about them.
They’re making progress, although some think it is too slow. To date, the CLA has issued just three licenses for legal operation in the cannabis industry, to Timeless Herbal Care, Epican and Everything Oily. “Applications are being continually processed, with 270 in progress, including over 57 conditionally approved and five licenses granted, some of which are close to being issued,” CLA chair Hyacinth Lightbourne said in a press release in October. “The Ministry of Health has been training and certifying doctors in accordance with their stipulation for doctors to be trained for the writing of ganja-related prescriptions. These are indicators that the industry is viable and progressing. Although it has appeared to be a long process, we are confident that the medical ganja industry in Jamaica is being developed responsibly and in a manner which can stand the test of time.”
In addition to the CLA, Jamaica’s Ministry of Health regulates cannabis processing, strains and products, and looks at the scientific side of the plant, studying the percentage of CBD and THC in each strain. The ministry also provides training for physicians who want to recommend cannabis, though this is not legally required. Medical practitioners who recommend it must be registered with the Medical Council of Jamaica, the national agency that licenses doctors, and other health practitioners must be approved by the Ministry of Health.
Since Jamaica has one of the lowest economic growth rates in the developed world, a regulated cannabis industry could help boost jobs, income and tourism on the island. Banks are cautious about working with cannabis businesses, however. There are also concerns from both ends of the political spectrum, with ganja-infused “cannabis edibles” banned last May amidst fear they would be sold to children, and other Jamaicans worried about maintaining the “cultural” aspects of ganja. Jamaica remains careful about how it will affect international relationships, particularly with the U.S. The country has entered into treaties prohibiting the manufacture and distribution of cannabis and other drugs, and Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ government is fully aware of the Trump administration’s position on cannabis and the potential influence the U.S. has over international trade.
As with several U.S. states that have legalized cannabis, expect Jamaica to overcome its regulatory challenges and ultimately evolve with positive results.
JAMAICA’S RASTAFARI ROOTZFEST
From Dec. 15-17, I attended the 2017 Rastafari Rootzfest, which has become Jamaica’s premier cannabis event (licensed and approved by the government). Based in Negril, the event featured educational panel discussions, the Ganjamaica Cup, live reggae by Capleton and others, yoga, meditation, and food, craft and clothing vendors. As a major sponsor of Rastafari Rootzfest, Oaksterdam University faculty members were on hand to offer advice about horticulture, product development, legalization policy and many other subjects.
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