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Caribbean and Drugs: Time for Some Healing?

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An outdoor food stand in Jamaica. Image by Robin Wigglesworth. Jamaica, 2013.

Richard Thomas, a dreadlocked Jamaican sound engineer and musician, is still livid over the last time he was arrested and briefly jailed for smoking marijuana. While his country is plagued by one of the world’s worst homicide rates, the “jailhouses are filled with people that have just smoked a spliff,” he fumes.

Thomas, who performs under the name of Jah Pinks, said he now prefers to drink marijuana tea; it’s better for his lungs and can be done discretely without the police hassling him over something many Jamaicans see as an integral part of their culture.

Paradoxically, while marijuana use is prevalent across the Caribbean the drug remains illegal in every single country – something that has often puzzled and frustrated both locals and visitors. That, however, may be about to change.

Some countries are now debating whether to legalize the growth and sale of marijuana – or at least decriminalizing the possession of modest amounts of “ganja” – as they search for ways to revive economies stricken by a tourism downturn and improve the health of government budgets. While there are no formal plans toward legalization, some regional politicians say the time is right to revisit the debate at a minimum.

“No question, the time has come for a serious discussion, based not on the opinion of the international community but on reality,” says Mia Mottley, head of the opposition Barbados Labour Party. “We have to take a decision based on the wishes of our people.”

That wish is for the most part that limited marijuana use should be allowed, especially now that even some US states are legalizing the drug. That view is gathering ground elsewhere in the western hemisphere too. Uruguay this month became the first country in the world to make it legal to grow, sell and consume marijuana, after a bill passed by 16 votes to 13 in the Senate.

Rodney Grant, a community activist in Barbados, is indignant that the US continues to put pressure on Caribbean countries on keeping marijuana a controlled substance, even as parts of the US move in the opposite direction. “Their domestic policy is different from their foreign policy,” he says. “They’re decriminalizing it at home, but criminalizing our citizens.”

Legalization would carry several important benefits for Caribbean countries. It would allow hard-pressed security forces to focus on more important areas, and potentially raise additional revenue for depleted state coffers. Money could be made not just from selling legal marijuana to locals and tourists, but also the production of medicinal marijuana for international exports – an attractive proposition for countries in desperate need of foreign currency earnings.

The first tentative step has been for Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago and current chairwoman of Caricom, a regional body, to ask the Caricom Secretariat to research the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The regional trade body is expected to present its findings to Caribbean leaders in February.

Nonetheless, there remains plenty of resistance against even decriminalizing marijuana and most politicians that have aired the idea have coached it in terms of “starting a debate.” For all the popularity of marijuana, the Caribbean remains culturally very conservative and religious.

Richard Skerritt, tourism and transport minister in St Kitts and Nevis, one of the more skeptical countries, says overseas conservatism also plays a role. “It’s not easy for governments to legalize marijuana when all our neighbors will keep it illegal. We don’t want to be seen as rogue states.”

The overseas resistance is real. The International Narcotics Control Board, an independent group of experts established by the UN to monitor compliance with international drug treaties, said Uruguay’s legalization law would “be in complete contravention to the provisions of the international drug treaties to which Uruguay is party.”

Grant attributes the timidity of the Caribbean to the influence of conservative churches, which are important social centers and political hubs across the region. “It’s politics. They’re afraid about the uproar from the churches,” he argues. “We have two rum shops next to every church. But they don’t fight that evil, but marijuana.”

This is a common complaint among ganja-enjoying Caribbean people. Even Bob Marley said: “Herb is the healing of the nation, alcohol is the destruction.” For countries already suffering from a bad dose of economic pain, some healing might be just what the doctor ordered.