The debate on decriminalizing marijuana

Last month the University of the West Indies hosted a three-day Cannabis Conference at its Mona campus, co-sponsored by UWI and the Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Research Task Force (CCMRTF). Scientists and researchers from several countries addressed the likely economic implications of decriminalization, as well as the drug’s sacramental uses in Rastafarian culture, and the commercial exploitation of its unquestioned medicinal benefits. Building on the Jamaican government’s earlier gestures towards decriminalization, the conference ended with a 12-point roadmap that could, with sufficient political will, produce new legislation within a year. When Caricom leaders gather in Antigua next month they may wish to consider similar policies.

Jamaica’s progress towards decriminalizing marijuana offers the entire Caribbean a chance to turn its back on decades of ineffective policy, much of it enacted under pressure from the United States. The tentative approach to ending the costly and ill-conceived prohibitions ushered in by the US-led “war on drugs” is suggestive of how fraught the issue has become with political considerations that have no relevance to the sort of practical questions considered at the UWI conference.

Within North America the recreational use of marijuana is hardly a taboo subject (Barack Obama is the first president to freely admit “inhaling”) and the economic benefits from decriminalization, or even full legalization, are considerable.

Nine years ago, the Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron published a comprehensive report on The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition. The report, which was endorsed by three Nobel prize-winning economists, indicated that legalization could save US$7.7 billion in law enforcement costs each year, more than half of which would be passed on to local governments. It estimated that if legal marijuana was taxed at rates comparable to alcohol and tobacco it could produce a further $6.2 billion.

In Canada – where 60,000 citizens face possession charges each year – politicians are considering full legalization of marijuana, although many are still waiting to see what lessons can be learned from the US state of Colorado, where legalization recently took place after a ballot initiative. In the meantime the federal government is actively promoting the commercial production of medical marijuana and early applicants for a production licence include a former Ontario health minister.

Whether it is decriminalized or even legalized, marijuana will continue to offer the same benefits, and pose the same risks, as ever. Each year legal drugs like alcohol destroy thousands of families, cause pointless traffic deaths and provoke needless violence. There is no reason to expect that marijuana will be any different. What will end with a mature drugs policy, however, is the pointless overcrowding of prisons with non-violent offenders, and the sort of hypocrisy that has allowed FIFA, on behalf of its sponsors, to press Brazil into overturning its prohibition on the sale of beer at its football venues.

Many questions about the sale, distribution, taxation and use of drugs still need to be settled in Jamaica, and anywhere else that decides to decriminalize or legalize drugs like marijuana. But until our politicians start to talk openly about the real costs of benefits of reforming our outmoded drugs policies, few of these questions can be asked, much less answered.

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