Pubdate: Sun, 31 Oct 2010
Source: Jamaica Observer (Jamaica)
Copyright: 2010 The Jamaica Observer Ltd,
Author: Ronald Sanders

Decriminalising marijuana -- taking the high ground

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 I believe 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 -- a view I have expressed before.

Every serious and independent scientific study that has examined the
matter of decriminalising marijuana has recommended that it be
decriminalised. Recently, US billionaire financier and philanthropist
George Soros donated $1 million in relation to a proposal in the
election campaign in California, USA, 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 due to
challenges by Latin American countries and the United States who was
encouraged by large US-owned corporations that dominated the banana
market. They have turned to the marijuana business because without it,
they will not survive. Therefore, 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

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 has to 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

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. 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 as
well 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

This matter of decriminalisation would have to be handled responsibly.
The entire process from production to distribution would have to be
highly regulated and heavily taxed, just as cigarettes and alcohol are
taxed heavily. Advertising for its use would have to be severely
restricted as happens now with cigarettes and cigars, and education
programmes explaining 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 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 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 authorising state-licensed

Surely, if the American states are considering it, so should the

Sir Ronald Sanders is a consultant and former Caribbean diplomat.
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