Pubdate: Mon, 21 Apr 2014
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2014 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Jacqueline Charles, The Miami Herald
Page: 15


Leaders Across the Caribbean Consider Easing Laws on Marijuana, Which
Could Be Region's Cash Crop

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 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. 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 U.S. and Latin American lawmakers - are
considering loosening restrictions to control and capitalize on the
popular crop.

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

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 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 marijuana trafficking.

Still, there are hurdles. As the United Nations plans a special
session in 2016 on the world's drug problem, a contentious debate on
marijuana policies is taking place, with advocates of drug prohibition
accusing countries of ignoring U.N. drug treaties. One U.N.-affiliated
agency late last year 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?" said
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.

Inside a Rose Bank spliff bar, the debate continues as a half-dozen
growers split on the issue. Their community has survived, they say,
because of marijuana cultivation. Ganja, as it is called here, has
schooled children, built homes and allowed residents to survive the
economic fallout from the once-profitable banana industry.

"Why are we not cashing in on the money? Why are we going to sit back
and be penalized?" said Conroy St. Hilaire, trying to convince growers
as he dropped in for a smoke. "America doesn't want us to export it to
them, so why don't we try and get the people to come here and spend
their money? Makes sense to me."

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 because of 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 at Mona, who has studied the issue for more than 20 years.

Abel said the growing popularity of marijuana legislation in the
United States has sent a strong signal to Jamaica, where a marijuana
commission was first set up in 2001, and the country has allowed two
marijuana-based prescription drugs for 30 years.

And while Jamaica's technology minister has said its parliament could
decriminalize small amounts of marijuana before the end of this year,
some feel the country isn't moving quickly enough.

This month, supporters of medicinal marijuana launched the Ganja
Future Growers and Producers Association to lobby for a legal
framework for its cultivation, processing and export.

"We are promoting taxing, education, regulating and controlling the
new ganja regime. We want an organized, regulated, legalized industry
that would also include persons involved in the exportation of the
drugs," said Delano Seiveright, a member of the association, which
boasts a number of high-profile advocates including professors and

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 ages 15 and 25, when the brain
is developing. Across the Caribbean, many people start smoking
marijuana between ages 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.

Junior "Spirit" Cottle, 63, a selfdescribed advocate of the ganja man
in St. Vincent, said he, too, opposes pot-smoking by minors.

And while he isn't completely against legislation, he said, the
priority for now should be decriminalization.

"Too many of our youths are ending up in prisons and become criminals
because it's not decriminalized," he said.

Cottle worries that legalization will push out poor farmers who have
kept St. Vincent's economy afloat through the illicit growing and sales.

"It means we are going to take that industry out of the hands of the
ordinary persons and allow a few individuals to control it or
monopolize it," he said.

But Empress Modupe Olufunmi-Jacobs and husband Ras Laurent Jacobs say
full legalization is the only way to go.

Their Inivershall Rastafari Movement organization in Kingstown
supports using ganja for religious sacrament and a variety of other

"Marijuana is profitable, whether it's legal or illegal," Laurent
Jacobs said.

"Once you are growing good quality marijuana, you will make money."
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MAP posted-by: Matt