Caribbean awaits debate on decriminalization of medicinal marijuana

He is among those Caribbean nationals anxiously awaiting the outcome of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Inter-Sessional summit that begins here on Monday where the issue of decriminalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes would have been discussed.

Delplesche does not hide the fact that he too favours regional governments agreeing to decriminalize the drug for medical purposes.

“I think it is a good vibes,” he told the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC), adding “no work is going on in the country, so we have to look to do something else. That is the only thing we can do and make a little money.”

A report by a group of experts supports the argument by Delplesche that decriminalizing marijuana and exploring its use for medicinal purposes could help boost the sluggish economies of Caribbean countries.

When they meet here over the next two days, the regional leaders will discuss the report that has already indicated that the Caribbean has a built-in competitive advantage with marijuana cultivation.

“The region may wish therefore to explore any commercial benefit from a potential multi-billion industry including research and development and also the production of medical marijuana products,” the report stated.

CARICOM Chairman, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, the host prime minister foe the inter-sessional summit, last year urged his regional colleagues to discuss the issue of decriminalizing marijuana noting the steps taken in the United States in this regard.

“Medical marijuana is important, but it doesn’t have the importance of say, climate change or the nature of the economy and the responses to the global economic crisis,” Gonsalves said.

He told CMC that apart from the fact that 20 states have decriminalized marijuana for medical purposes, Washington is putting measures in place to permit the medical marijuana industry to use US-based banks to conduct their trade.

Gonsalves makes reference to MediCanja, the medical marijuana company established in Jamaica, where the government has announced that it will decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana by yearend.

Even if Jamaica does not meet that target, “they have proceeded apace and I have no doubt that all these developments are having an impact,” Gonsalves said, noting also that the media in that country seem to be supportive of the move towards medical marijuana.

But Gonsalves may find that support for decriminalizing the illegal rug in his own backyard may not be an easy proposition.

“From my perspective, the question of medical marijuana at this time is a non-issue,” Opposition Leader, Arnhim Eustace told CMC, adding, ““we have a lot of difficulties in this Caribbean to deal with right now, including in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, of an economic and financial nature and that is where I think our emphasis should be.”

Eustace, an economist and former prime minister, while acknowledging the developments in the United States, said however “I think we need to grapple with those things that are critically important to our economies and our societies right at this time.”

The Grenada government of Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell has also sought to distance itself from the topic.

It has made it clear that the cultivation and use of marijuana are illegal, with the Education and Human Resource Development Minister, Anthony Boatswain saying the government would “abide by the laws of our land”.

He said statistics by the Grenada Drug Epidemiology Network and National Observatory on Drugs for the period January 1 to June 30 last year support his concerns about drug use in Grenada.

“One hundred and twenty-three patients, consisting of 118 males and 5 females, were admitted for problems derived from the consumption of drugs. Sixty-eight of these patients encountered psychiatric and behavioral disorders, due to the use of cannabinoids. This number comprised 61 males and 4 females, between ages 20 to 70 years,” Boatswain said

In Barbados, Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite has ruled out the possibility of the legalization of marijuana there.

But regional governments may also have to deal with the reality of a lot of money that could be made from decriminalizing the drug.

The State of Legal Marijuana Markets in a report released in the United States last year noted that the funds to be obtained from the legal marijuana industry would outstrip the expansion of the global smartphone market.

Further, financial experts suggest that in Washington and Colorado, the legalization of marijuana may bring in as much as US$2.1 billion in revenue from new taxes in five years.

A few years ago, Gonsalves was worried about the impact of marijuana on the society particularly the healthcare system and the strain on law enforcement and the judicial system.

But today, he is calling for foresight regarding medical marijuana.

“One of the problems that I foresee is that if we don’t address this, and even if we address it now, there’s still the great danger that in the next 10 years, we will be buying pharmaceutical products involving marijuana from the great US of A.

“We may well find that a cross border trade taking place where we are put at a disadvantage,” he told CMC.

The prospect of medical marijuana in CARICOM has excited Junior “Spirit” Cottle, a longtime activist for the decriminalization of marijuana.

“I complement it. It is a marvelous step,” he said, adding that marijuana is “a healing herb and, for years, it has been kept away from people who need it.

“And if it comes on board, we have to take advantage of it,” said Cottle, a former head of the defunct Marijuana Growers Association.

Cottle said that while he is not sure how much benefit, financially, can be derived from medical marijuana in the region, there are examples from further afield.

“The bigger countries like the United States, Canada, they are already into it. And let us see what advantage we can take by using the herb for medicinal reason and other reasons also, like recreation and industrial; but we take it one step at a time,” said Cottle, who made it clear that he supports the decriminalization, rather than the legalization of marijuana.

Herbalist Sonjay Johnson also supports the move toward medical marijuana.

“Knowledge is progressing … and I am not surprised that the benefits of marijuana have come forth. So, let’s just embrace it. I know from my own knowledge of herbs that marijuana has had some therapeutic value, but I never expect the day when it would become so widespread and so acceptable.”

But it might be some time yet before Vincentians see the decriminalization of marijuana medicinal purposes.

“It is very difficult to do it single state, particularly a state as small as St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Gonsalves said, adding “but if we do it as CARICOM, even if every country doesn’t do it at the same time but there is a decision that we can do it, it makes it easier for it to be done.

“For instance, we share experience with Jamaica. Jamaica is far advanced in terms of medical marijuana,” he said.

Gonsalves, however, said there is “a healthy debate” taking place about the issue, adding that this is what he called for — “a rational discussion on the question”. 

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