Pubdate: Fri, 05 Dec 2003
Source: Inter Press Service (Wire)
Copyright: 2003 IPS-Inter Press Service
Author: Dionne Jackson Miller
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


MONTEGO BAY (IPS) - "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, 

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 fraternitya 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 

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.

"[From] 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 

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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