From the outset of this commentary, let me state categorically that I have never smoked marijuana, and I do not drink alcohol except for the occasional glass of wine at a celebration. I was a heavy cigarette smoker until 1980 when, with great difficulty, I went from over 20 cigarettes a day to none at all overnight.
I am relating all this because, not for the first time, I am arguing that the Caribbean should legalise the growing of marijuana for medicinal purposes and should end laws that criminalise the use of small quantities for recreational and religious purposes.
Every serious and independent scientific study that has examined the matter of decriminalising marijuana has recommended that it should be decriminalised, and now the US billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros has donated $1 million to a proposal in the election campaign in the state of California in the United States to try to legalise marijuana.
In the Caribbean, there are thousands of people who are criminals because they are, in one way or another, involved in illegally growing, picking, packing and distributing marijuana.
Many of these are farmers or people who worked on farms and who have lost markets for their products such as bananas or citrus because Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) countries were deprived of preferential access to the European Union market because of challenges by Latin American countries and the United states encouraged by large US-owned corporations that dominated the banana market. They have turned to working the marijuana business because without it, they will not survive. So, they are criminals.
If these countries were growing and exporting marijuana legally, the current financial crisis that many of them face from the loss of markets for agricultural exports would be swiftly corrected.
Marijuana is already California's biggest cash crop, worth an estimated $14 billion annually - more than the state earns from grapes harvested for its wines. For a time, there were more than 800 dispensaries in Los Angeles - which is more marijuana outlets than coffee shops.
If it is legalised in California, the state’s coffers will swell.
Of course, the attitude to criminalising marijuana is driven by lobbies in the United States – the same country that had prohibited the use of alcohol. Few countries are willing to stand-up and say: “We will examine all aspects of decriminalising marijuana and we will take a decision based on our own national and regional circumstances”. In fact, the converse is true. Every year countries live in fear of the annual report by the United States that points an accusing finger at countries where marijuana is grown or is transited to the US market.
But this is what George Soros say about the issue: “The criminalisation of marijuana did not prevent marijuana from becoming the most widely used substance in the United States and many other countries. But it did result in extensive costs and negative consequences”.
Soros goes on to observe: “Regulating and taxing marijuana would simultaneously save taxpayers billions of dollars in enforcement and incarceration costs while providing many billions of dollars in revenue annually”.
He also makes a point that is substantiated by expert studies that “it would also reduce the crime and violence associated with drug markets and the violations of civil liberties and human rights that occur when large numbers of law abiding citizens are subject to arrest” .
In 2002, a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in Britain indicated that relaxation of the cannabis laws could save police $60 million a year and vastly improve police and community relations, and in a previous commentary on this issue I pointed out that University of the West Indies Professor Alston Chevannes, who chaired a Task Force on Drugs in Jamaica some years ago, noted: “Jamaica would like to decriminalise personal use of cannabis but is afraid of US decertification. Other CARICOM countries would probably like to but can't for the same reason. An international movement that includes big players like Mexico and Brazil would prevent our small countries from being exposed. If the US can be won, then I reckon the UN would have to come to its senses and reconsider the Conventions”.
This matter of decriminalisation would have to be handled responsibly. The entire process from production to distribution would have to be highly regulated and taxed heavily just as cigarettes and alcohol are heavily taxed. Advertising for its use would have to be severely restricted as happens now with cigarettes and cigars, and education programmes explaining its addiction and discouraging its use should be mounted in a sustainable fashion. And, just as it would be illegal to drink alcohol and drive so it should be to use marijuana and drive. Excessive use of cannabis should also be discouraged in the same way as the excessive consumption of alcohol.
People are not allowed to go to work drunk on alcohol or to be drunk on the job; similar restrictions should apply to marijuana use.
But, at the bottom line, marijuana should be brought into the legal system of regulation and control and education and taxation. If it were to happen, the gang warfare, the spread of illegal weapons, the number of young people in jails – all would be reduced in Caribbean countries.
As Professor Chevannes suggested, no one Caribbean country could contemplate such action on its own, but all of them should – at the very least – mount a study on the matter which should include the likely scenario for Caribbean countries in the future if marijuana continues to be a lucrative, illegal trade that lures our unemployed (many of them young people) into its web.
Incidentally, apart from the vote in California, two other states – Arizona and South Dakota have medical marijuana initiatives on their ballot. A third state, Oregon, will consider expanding its existing medical marijuana law by authorizing state-licensed dispensaries.
Surely if the American states are considering it, so should the Caribbean.