Pubdate: Sun, 02 Oct 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Azam Ahmed


MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica - Jamaica has long bemoaned its reputation as the
land of ganja.

It has enforced draconian drug laws and spent millions on public
education to stem its distinction as a pot mecca. But its role as a
major supplier of illicit marijuana to the United States and its
international image - led by the likes of Bob Marley, whose
Rastafarian faith considers smoking up a religious act - have been too
strong to overcome.

Now, its leaders smell something else: opportunity.

Having watched states like Colorado and California generate billions
of dollars from marijuana, Jamaica has decided to embrace its
herbaceous brand.

Rather than arresting and shunning the country's Rasta population, the
Jamaican authorities will leverage it. Beyond decriminalizing the
possession of small amounts of marijuana last year, Jamaica has
legalized the use of medical marijuana, with its ultimate sights set
on "wellness tourism" and the font of money it could bring.

And for good reason: Jamaica has one of the lowest economic growth
rates in the developing world, a striking contrast to the global
success its citizens have enjoyed in the worlds of sports and music.
Continue reading the main story

So, having done just about everything experts say a stupendously
indebted nation should do - sticking to austere fiscal plans, adopting
prudent macroeconomic policies and creating a friendly climate for
outside investors - Jamaica is adding marijuana to its arsenal.

The new world order has brought together an odd assortment of
characters. At a recent conference at a luxury hotel in Montego Bay,
besuited government officials and business leaders mingled with pot
farmers and Rastafarian leaders like First Man, who kicked off the
conference with a speech on the global benefits of ganja.

"We are talking about a plant that bridges the gap between all of our
relationships," First Man, barefoot with a Rasta scarf around his
neck, said to a packed room. "Our planet needs this relationship to

As the head of a Rastafarian village in Jamaica, First Man was
speaking at the first CanEx conference, a gathering of government and
local leaders trying to figure out just how the country can most
effectively make this about-face, without neglecting international

No one is really clear how the industry will evolve. Technically, the
United Nations convention on drugs - which requires nations to limit
the production, trade, use and possession of drugs - still prevails,
meaning that outright federal legalization is, well, illegal.

But with the United States and Canada edging toward permitting the
drug's use, Jamaica wants in, too.

"In the past, the United States really left no room for maneuver,"
said Mark Golding, the former minister of justice who developed the
legislation to permit medical marijuana production in Jamaica. "But
with the Obama administration creating an opportunity for states to do
what they wanted to, it created a window for all of us."

"Where the real market is, and where the real money is, remains to be
seen," he added. "We are all just preparing for it."

For some, society is at the beginning of a post-Prohibition era, much
as it was with alcohol decades ago, when global brands and untold
billions were still to be made.

That's still a long way off. Jamaica began legalizing the use of
medical marijuana last year, but has so far granted only a few
licenses to cultivate marijuana for research purposes. No one, as yet,
has sold any product legally, but the government is gearing up to meet
whatever market presents itself.

"Jamaica for so long has been associated with this plant," said the
conference organizer, Doug Gordon. "Now, it's a business, an
opportunity, one that can change the future of this country through
jobs and income, one that can change our G.D.P."

Of course, all of this has stoked fears of inequality for poor rural
farmers, who have long been targeted for doing exactly what the
country is now trying to take advantage of. Many fear that big money
will come in, monopolize the industry and leave those on the margins
exactly where it found them.

Iyah V, a Rastafarian leader who sits on the nation's nascent
licensing authority, summed up concerns by pointing to the many suits
and relatively few Rastas at the conference.

"If we are not organized, and are not helped, the possibility exists
for the ganja industry to become the next tourism, coffee or sugar
industry, where our people are used as common laborers and the wealth
is confined to a few," he said.

Jamaican leaders say they are trying to heed the warning. Most agree
there should be access to capital for small farmers, as well as breaks
on expensive licensing fees and other upfront costs. But those, too,
are yet to be determined. Even entrepreneurs agree that the playing
field is not a level one.

Varun Baker, a well-traveled and educated entrepreneur, has started
Ganjagram, an application where users can read up on the laws
regarding marijuana in Jamaica. Ultimately, he hopes to make it
something of an Uber for marijuana smokers, allowing clients to order
and select products for delivery through their phones.

He is searching for partners and investors to help fund his ambitions,
but the pitch remains difficult.

"There is lots of gray area," Mr. Baker said. "People don't really
understand what the government is doing."

Bali Vaswani, by contrast, is a prominent businessman in Jamaica who
has created several brands, including Marley Brand Coffee on behalf of
Marley's family. He is already working with a research license and
last month harvested the first crop of legal marijuana in Jamaica.

He is not only clear on the rules in place now, but is in a position
to help shape those to come. He has ample capital to invest and
business know-how, specifically in the marijuana industry in Colorado,
so it is hard to imagine how he will not dominate the market here when
it finally does open up.

"I'm trying to bring a corporate structure to this, and do my part to
build Brand Jamaica," he said. "I've been given a set of rules, and
all I do is follow it. It's not beneficial to knock the rules."

To date, there has been a lot of knocking of the rules. In fact,
farmers, Rastafarians and academics have joined forces to slow the
transformation underway, fearing small farmers will be railroaded.

Kadamawe Knife, a Rastafarian academic, spent a significant portion of
his presentation at the conference bashing the Cannabis Licensing
Authority, the government's regulatory apparatus for ganja.

"How do we make money on this? What is the growth strategy?" he asked,
directing his questions to a member of the licensing authority who was
awkwardly sharing the stage with him. "I have asked, and I haven't
seen anything."

The licensing authority member, Delano Seiveright, took the
accusations and jabs onstage with aplomb. Afterward, he said Dr. Knife
had made some good points. But it did not change the fact that Jamaica
was desperate for the funds that cannabis could provide.

To claw its way back to prosperity and pay back one of the worst
ratios of debt to gross domestic product in the world, the country is
adhering to a strict austerity regime set out by the International
Monetary Fund, which has meant little public spending in the last few

Now, leaders are desperate to find any means to expand the economy.
And for some officials, earning the money quickly and efficiently
means allowing the market to determine the winners, a strategy that
favors those with resources.

"Ultimately it's going to be hard to stop it," Mr. Seiveright said.
"And we don't necessarily want to stop it. We have adopted the
principles of capitalism, but we also believe that small farmers
should have a leg up for a certain amount of time."

Orville Silvera, the head of an association that represents about
2,000 marijuana growers and was formed with the government's blessing,
worries that big money will get concessions for huge amounts of
acreage, boxing out the smaller farmers toiling away on a few acres.

But he is not opposed to survival of the fittest - so long as the
farmers who have been growing their ganja in the shadows for decades
get a fair shot.

"We want to build this from the ground up," he said. "Let those among
us who can do it expand."

"The others," he said, "can fail."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt