By Peter Richards
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad CMC – More than a decade ago, St. Lucia’s Prime Minister, Dr. Kenny Anthony, proposed a CARICOM Commission on Marijuana. It never gained traction.
But, a recent letter sent to Caribbean leaders by the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, has sparked renewed debate in the region on the decriminalization of marijuana.
In his September 2 letter sent to Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, Kamla Persad Bissessar, who is the chair of the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM) grouping, Gonsalves called for a “reasoned debate” led by CARICOM’s political and civic leadership in the context of the legalization of marijuana for medical and health purposes in 20 states in the United States.
“It is already a huge industry with legitimate cultivation, research, production and distribution of pharmaceutical and cosmetic products,” Gonsalves wrote to his colleagues, adding “the longer we wait to give serious regional consideration to this subject, the further behind we would lag in the inevitable legislation of medical marijuana globally.
“In the end, our Caribbean would consume the medical/health, cosmetic and other products derived from marijuana, legally grown and produced, in the USA,” he argued.
But regional leaders, who met here on Tuesday, have not gone heels over Gonsalves proposals.
Persad Bissessar said a decision had been taken to have the Guyana-based CARICOM Secretariat conduct further research on the medical and legal implications of decriminalizing marijuana.
She said further, the National Drug Council in Trinidad and Tobago had developed a concept paper on the issue and that would be sent to the Guyana-based Secretariat.
“The decision is no decision on that issue (decriminalizing marijuana) except to say much further discussions, much more consultations in each other country will take place before a report is presented in February next year,” when the regional leaders meet for their inter-sessional summit, Persad Bissessar said.
Gonsalves said that he believes the region should discuss the matter in a “sensible focussed, non-hysterical manner.
“After all, the marijuana plant has a bundle of proven and potentially beneficial uses,” he said, making reference to the work done by the Jamaican-born chemist and cancer researcher, Dr. Henry Lowe, whom he said, along with his other Caribbean professionals “have been raising their influential voices in favour of the legitimate utilization of marijuana products for a range of medical and health purposes”.
Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister, Baldwin Spencer, said it made no sense shying away from the debate on the matter.
“I certainly would court …looking at this issue in a real serious way and to be able to move towards doing something that could be beneficial to society and that’s the important thing.
“If it means we have to look at this marijuana medicinal value of it and it can shape something that is beneficial for medicinal purposes, I don’t think that this is something we should just frown upon,” he added.
Lowe has said that the Jamaica government should take a serious look at developing the medical marijuana industry.
Participating in the Editor’s Forum at the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper earlier this month, Lowe said Kingston, which has a multi-billion dollar agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is missing out on much needed revenue since it is not able to benefit from the wide range of cosmeceutical, neutraceutical and pharmaceutical products being developed across the world.
“I think Jamaica has got a clear leadership role in medical ganja, and I am calling on the Government of Jamaica – including the parliamentary Opposition – to take a look at this, so we can move forward and do what we need to do … because it has real potential,” Lowe told the forum.
He said while the cultivation of marijuana is illegal and most of the debate has been centred on the smoking of marijuana, emphasis must now shift to the medical and extension, economic potential for Jamaica.
But medical practitioner and government legislator, Dr. Dayton Campbell, speaking in the Jamaica Parliament on Wednesday, warned of the ill and wide-ranging negative effect of decriminalizing marijuana.
“A number of studies have shown an association between chronic marijuana use and mental illness. High doses of marijuana can produce a temporary psychotic reaction (involving hallucinations and paranoia) in some users, and using marijuana can worsen the course of illness in patients with schizophrenia,” he said.
Campbell also told legislators that a three-month study of trauma victims at the University Hospital of the West Indies showed that marijuana was the most prevalent substance found in their bodies.
He said 50 percent of the trauma victims had the marijuana in their system as against 43 percent of alcohol found in the bodies of crash victims.
“So we have this impression that it is drinking and driving that is the main reason for some of our road traffic accidents,” said Campbell, adding that the data had proved otherwise.
Chairman of the Cannabis Movement in St. Lucia, Andre De Caires, said the region should debate the merits and demerits of decriminalizing marijuana.
“We in St. Lucia have been fighting for the cause for the past 15 years and we have been educating our population. So more than all the other CARICOM states, St. Lucia is in the best position to take the lead on this issue,” he said.
But Trinidad and Tobago’s Chief Justice ignited the debate even further, when at the start of the new law term on Monday, he suggested that consideration should be given to decriminalizing simple marijuana possession in a bid to reduce the burden placed upon the judiciary.
“This is not a moral judgment although one might observe that marijuana consumption probably wreaks no more havoc than alcohol addiction but we provide support for one and punishment for the other,” he said, noting that “the consensus about many of the assumptions about the effects of marijuana in particular is unravelling.
“So much so that CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta recently publicly changed his stance on the issue,” he told his fellow judges.
Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, appearing on a television program here said the coalition government here would welcome a healthy debate on the need to legalize marijuana and that the Chief Justice was “clearly thinking outside the box”.