Pubdate: Sat, 05 Apr 2014
Source: Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Copyright: 2014 Sun-Sentinel Company
Author: Jacqueline Charles, The Miami Herald
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


DARK VIEW FALLS, St. Vincent - Deep-green marijuana plants grow along 
roadsides, in front yards and on plantations hidden in the 
mountainous interior of this lush island - and the spliff bar is just 
a stone's throw from the police station.

Inside the camouflaged business, a group of men smoke $1.15 joints 
between sips of beer while inviting visitors, with a slight smile and 
raised chin, to take a hit. Steps away in a back room, two men share 
a joint as they stuff cured cannabis into tiny plastic bags.

Here and across the Caribbean, marijuana is illegal, yet it is widely 
used, freely sold and openly puffed. It's evidence of the shifting 
attitudes over pot. Now, for the first time, Caribbean leaders - much 
like a growing number of American and Latin American lawmakers - are 
considering loosening restrictions to control and capitalize on the 
popular crop.

"Marijuana is the new 21st-century banana," St. Vincent Foreign 
Minister Camillo Gonsalves said, likening the forbidden substance to 
the Caribbean's last great cash crop, as regional leaders met behind 
closed doors here in February to consider whether to change their laws.

On the table is everything from decriminalizing small amounts of 
marijuana for recreational and religious use to cultivating it for 
medicinal purposes. In doing so, Caribbean leaders are seeking to 
transform a seedy, underground economy into a source of taxable revenue.

Lost war on drugs

The proposed shift comes as Floridians prepare to vote in November on 
a constitutional amendment to allow the medical use of marijuana, and 
Colorado reports collecting roughly $2 million in taxes on $14 
million in recreational medical marijuana sales in January.

"It's an idea whose time has come," said St. Vincent Prime Minister 
Ralph Gonsalves, who as current chairman of the 15-member Caribbean 
Community, has been leading the call for "a mature, intelligent 
conversation" on medical marijuana and decriminalization. "We cannot 
continue, frankly, with the drug policies we have had over the years."

Those policies, championed by the United States, have failed to 
curtail the use of marijuana, which is widely popular throughout the 
Caribbean where poor, underdeveloped governments have struggled with 
the criminal impact of the marijuana trafficking trade.

Still, there are hurdles. As the United Nations plans a special 
session in 2016 on the world's growing drug problem, a contentious 
debate on marijuana policies is taking place, with advocates of 
continued drug prohibition accusing countries of ignoring U.N. drug treaties.

One U.N.-affiliated agency last month even called the government of 
Uruguay "pirates" for its trailblazing decision to fully legalize pot 
by overseeing its production, sales and consumption.

For its part, the U.S. is quietly watching the decriminalization 
discussions unfolding around the region, including in Mexico and Guatemala.

"We, the United States government, believe legalization is not a 
panacea for the drug problem," said a State Department spokesman who 
noted that the federal government still regards marijuana among the 
most dangerous substances despite what's happening in individual 
states. "Evidence suggests legalized cannabis is detrimental to 
public health and will not improve public safety."

Gonsalves and some leaders aren't so sure. They have commissioned a 
study on the social, legal and public health impact on their 
societies, and the report is expected at their July meeting.

Domestically, the issue has ignited passionate debate in the region's 
sun-bleached territories where the public and even those most likely 
to benefit from a policy change - the growers - are divided. A 
government poll shows Vincentians are evenly split on allowing 
marijuana for medicinal and religious purposes.

"What price will the government pay for a pound of the herb?" asked 
Fitzroy Francois, 50, a grower in rural Dark View Falls, touting the 
plant's medicinal benefits for treating asthma, epilepsy and heart 
problems as he examined a hybrid tree growing in a friend's yard.

A few miles south in neighboring Rose Bank, grower Aaron John, 21, 
opposes legalization. He is worried, he said, that the increased 
competition would spark violence as prices fall and growers can't 
make a living.

These days, there is so much pot on the market that growers are 
finding it difficult to command even the $115 a pound they usually 
charge, John said.

"Right now, people try to help one another," said John, 21, who has 
been farming marijuana since age 11.

Some 1,120 miles to the west in Jamaica, advocates also see 
tremendous tourism and economic benefits.

The country is already synonymous with pot smokers due to its 
Rastafari movement and reggae music icon Bob Marley. The global 
figure glorified the smoking of "herb," as he called it, on album 
covers; decried the fate of hunted ganja growers in songs like I Shot 
the Sheriff; and once famously said, "Herb is the healing of a 
nation, alcohol is the destruction."

But while polls show huge support among Jamaicans for medicinal 
marijuana, barely half favor removing criminal penalties.

"It remains a very vexing and contentious issue, but the public 
opinion is certainly shifting, and the broad level of political 
support is building certainly for medical marijuana and, in some 
quarters, decriminalization for personal use and religious 
sacrament," said Wendel Abel, a professor of psychiatry at the 
University of the West Indies Mona, who has studied the issue for 
more than 20 years.

Abel said any policy shift needs to include drug treatment programs 
and public education campaigns targeted at minors. University of the 
West Indies research, he said, shows that cannabis can be harmful to 
individuals between 15 and 25, when the brain is still developing. 
Also, across the Caribbean, many people start smoking marijuana 
between the ages of 12 and 14, Abel said.

So why advocate for loosening the reins?

"Jamaica has had some of the harshest legislation in the world in 
terms of marijuana use, and the harsh legislation has never served to 
decrease use in the country," Abel said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom