Cannabis and the trend towards legalisation

Scientific name: Cannabis, it is also known as hemp, marijuana, ganja and “weed” (particularly in Jamaica and the Caribbean) among a host of other aliases. Marijuana, as it is mostly known, is feared as a drug, revered as an herb, and is illegal to cultivate or use in many countries including Guyana. Indeed, our Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Act Chapter 10:10 essentially makes the entire plant illegal, citing “any part of that plant” and “the separated resin, whether crude or purified, obtained from cannabis.”

While Guyana is known for its seemingly official aversion to gathering and sharing statistics on matters of national importance, the prosecution of marijuana related offences in Guyana takes up a large percentage of the attention of our Criminal Justice System, including the Guyana Police Force, the Judiciary, and the Penal System, and negatively impacts a high number of persons, mostly youth, with spin-off negative effects for the general population. It would be a useful exercise indeed to quantify the social and economic cost to Guyana of the criminalisation of marijuana, and compare it to the anticipated social and economic cost of its potential legalisation.

The cry to “legalise it” is no new cry indeed, as the Jamaican Reggae singer Peter Tosh made a popular hit by the same name in 1976, that is, four decades ago. Many other Jamaican singers have also sung “Ganja songs” in support of its use and legalisation over the years, while activists including members of the Rastafari Movement have been resilient in their call for the legalisation of Cannabis.

In recent years, the debate has escalated as more information on the benefits of the herb is made public and legislators are being made aware of many medical success stories associated with the use of “medical marijuana” – a term referring to particular varieties of Cannabis recommended for patients’ use by doctors. It is a fact that in the USA, under the Obama administration, States have been allowed to legalise marijuana without the approval of the Federal government being required. Forbes Magazine reports Attorney General Jeff Sessions as confirming that, “Our policy is the same, really, fundamentally as the Holder-Lynch policy, which is that the federal law remains in effect and a state can legalise marijuana for its law enforcement purposes but it still remains illegal with regard to federal purposes.”

Several States in the US have therefore legalised marijuana for “recreational and medicinal use” including Washington in 2012 via the Washington Initiative 502 and this trend is expected to continue as the benefits of the marijuana plant continue to be explored, recognised and monetised under a legal framework in first world countries. Fortune reported this September that legal sales of medical and recreational marijuana generated tax revenues of US$3.68M in just the first month, and this is expected to reach US$120M in just two years.

While all this is taking place, Guyana’s legislators have remained seemingly irresponsive to the movement sweeping across the world. As a country that could potentially grow and export hemp considering the growing number of countries which are legalising and taxing the use of the herb, as a country we apparently do not see the need to get out ahead of the curve so as to maximise benefits in the sweeping change that appears to be coming.

In 2014, Jamaican academic Dr. Kadamawe Knife, during a public lecture entitled “Establishing Ganja Enterprises in the Caribbean: A Business Model Approach” shared his research on the economics of marijuana and put forward the view that Guyana could serve as an important link in developing and establishing a responsible hemp based agro-industry in the region.

Dr. Knife also sought to debunk the link between marijuana and criminality, and this has been reiterated by Guyanese activists at the recently concluded consultation by CARICOM’s Regional Commission on marijuana at the Saint Stanislaus College, in early November. Pressing their case for the decriminalisation of small amounts of the herb, social activist Nicole Cole referenced a case whereby a 77-year-old woman has been incarcerated in the New Amsterdam penitentiary for being in possession of marijuana stems and leaves which she used to brew tea.

Stories such as the one told by Ms. Cole bring to light the seeming harshness and inflexibility of the laws governing marijuana possession and use, and brings into sharp focus the social cost of the criminalisation of marijuana, but we can only guess as to the impact on the society of the incarceration of many men and women for the crimes of possession, use, and sale of a herb for which to date there is no record of any deaths occurring from its use or overdose.

Indeed, the closest thing to a claim of a marijuana-related death was made only this November by two Colorado medical practitioners who claimed that an 11-month-old toddler died from an overdose of marijuana. This rare case has attracted the scepticism of other doctors and the US Drug Enforcement Administration Fact Sheet continues to state that “no death from overdose of marijuana has been reported.”

Damien Marley, son of the late iconic Reggae Superstar teamed up with his brother to record “Medication” – a scintillatingly provocative song that casts light on the hypocrisy involved in the incarceration of many youths for the use of a plant that first world countries are now clamouring to commercialise, and have normalized with names like “medical” and “recreational” marijuana.

In the meanwhile, countries like Guyana continue to criminalise and penalise our young and our old in our penal systems, while society is forced to bear the unknown burden. It should also be noted in closing that legalisation gives structure and context to the use of the herb, and legalisation does not mean a free for all.

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