Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

JAMAICA: Go Easy on Ganja Users, Says Report

Dionne Jackson Miller

MONTEGO BAY, Dec 5 2003 (IPS) - Growing up, Anthony Freckleton saw marijuana as just another plant with medicinal values that grew wild in everyone’s back yard in southern Jamaica.

"Traditionally people have had it, and put it in bottles with rum and used it for various ailments. Over the years, it got demonised by the United States," Freckleton told IPS.

Called ganja in Jamaica, mention of marijuana, or cannabis, tends to conjure up images of hedonistic tourists smoking "weed" with easy-going Jamaicans.. The reality for thousands of Jamaicans has been far different, however.

Possession of marijuana, even in the small amounts present in a ganja cigarette, popularly known as a spliff, is a criminal offence. The police every year drag hundreds of Jamaicans – most of them poor young men – before the courts, where they are fined sums as low as five U.S. dollars, but left with a criminal record.

Despite the criminal sanctions, many Jamaicans have smoked ganja. A 1990 survey indicated that 47 percent of citizens in metropolitan areas and 43 percent in rural areas had used ganja at some time.

A 1997 survey of adolescents 9-13 years old, found that 27 percent had smoked ganja at some point, with 20 percent having drank ganja tea.

In particular Rastafarians, a religious sect whose members routinely uses ganja for their religious sacraments, have traditionally been targeted by the police for their use of marijuana.

On Dec. 3, international reggae artiste Buju Banton, whose real name is Mark Myrie, was charged by local police for possession of and cultivation of ganja.

Reports are that a police raid on his home found 30 fully-grown ganja plants. The singer, who is a Rastafarian, reportedly told police that he uses the plant for inspiration.

Part of the reason for the disconnect between local acceptance of ganja and the government’s position is pressure from the United States, says attorney-at-law and Rastafarian Michael Lorne.

"Over the years, several governments have been doing a balancing act -walking a tightrope between the people who desire it and our powerful North American neighbour, the United States," he told IPS.

"Most governments, not wanting to lose aid and all the benefits of co-operating with our neighbour, have been trying to side-step the main issue, but now I don’t think that any government can continue to do that; it is much too strong a feeling, a fervour, an agitation," says Lorne.

Indeed, the heavy-handed official attitude to ganja use has always chafed certain sectors of society, and the calls for personal use of marijuana to be decriminalised, if not outright legalised, have strengthened significantly in the past decade.

In 1996, a group of prominent Jamaicans, including lawyers and doctors, went public with their call, forming a lobby group to press for the legalisation of ganja, throwing their social and professional weight behind a position that had previously been articulated mainly by Rastafarians.

Following the increased pressure, the government convened a national commission to investigate whether laws should be changed. The National Commission on Ganja submitted its report to the prime minister two years ago, after nation-wide consultation, and the report is now being considered by a committee of Parliament.

The majority of persons who appeared before the commission favoured decriminalisation, whether they themselves supported the smoking of ganja or not, says Anthony Freckleton, who served on the body.

"The Catholic church, the Council of Churches, the Medical Association of Jamaica, the legal fraternityà in our meetings across the country with various stakeholders there was an overwhelming support for the use of marijuana in your private space, in your home, of small quantities for your own use; for smoking, for medicinal use, because of the imbedded cultural practices that we have in Jamaica," he adds.

The commission recommended that the use of small amounts of ganja for private, personal use by adults be decriminalised; that it be decriminalised for use as a religious sacrament, but that smoking by juveniles, and public smoking be prohibited.

Advocates point to the difference between decriminalising ganja for personal use and full legalisation, which would legitimise whole-scale cultivation and commercial sale.

Jamaica has, however, gone the recommendation route before. The commission’s report points out that a joint select committee of Parliament set up in 1977 unanimously concluded there was a "substantial case for decriminalising the personal use of ganja," a recommendation that was ignored.

But the Ganja Commission believes there is now an "overwhelming national and growing international consensus that cannabis should be decriminalised or at least differentiated from other banned substances".

Part of the groundswell is due to the growing mainstream acceptance of the medicinal values of the plant, which has been used as a folk medicine for decades.

Several years ago, scientists at the University of the West Indies developed from ganja the medicines Asmasol, for treatment of asthma, and Cannaasol, for glaucoma, the first such pharmaceutical drugs to be developed locally.

Ganja has also been known to be useful in treating nausea, stimulating appetite and promoting weight gain.

In recognition of the growing body of research into marijuana, the commission also recommended establishing a Cannabis Research Agency to coordinate research into all aspects of cannabis, and ensure that "Jamaica not be left behind".

Ganja’s medicinal qualities are being increasingly recognised around the world, and decriminalisation is increasingly being considered.

California decriminalised medical marijuana in 1996, and eight other U.S. states have followed suit. Thirty-five states have passed laws recognising marijuana’s medicinal values.

In Canada, a federal bill to decriminalise small amounts of marijuana died when Parliament adjourned recently, but it is expected to be re-introduced.

In the United Kingdom, the House of Lords last month approved a move to downgrade cannabis from a Class B drug to Class C, putting it in the same category as tranquillisers and steroids, and meaning that persons would not usually be arrested for possession.

Jamaica’s Ganja Commission recognises the possible negative effects of the use and abuse of ganja, including damage to the respiratory system, exacerbation of schizophrenic disease and academic failure in young people.

But many Jamaicans maintain that although tobacco products and alcohol have potentially harmful effects, they are legal, and argue that it is hypocritical to maintain sanctions against personal use of ganja.

> my perspective, there is no scientific or moral basis for the continued criminalisation of the use of ganja," says Freckleton. "It’s not a criminal issue, it’s a health issue, and we ought to understand that. The continued criminalisation of (Jamaicans), especially our young people, is outrageous."

To address health concerns, the Ganja Commission strongly recommended that a "sustained all-media, all-schools education programme aimed at demand reduction accompany the process of decriminalisation".

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