Almost a year to the day after Jamaica's former police commissioner, Colonel Trevor MacMillan, called for the decriminalization of ganja, the government of Prime Minister PJ Patterson announced it will set up a broad-based national commission to examine the question.
"Countries all over the world
are being forced to give consideration to the complex but delicate issues
of social, economic, cultural, and security policies which relate
Patterson told the Gleaner that the commission, whose chairman is yet to be named, will engage in consultations with "relevant interest groups" and review scientific opinion and research results about health risks and medicinal uses of marijuana. The commission will study ganja's impact on social behavior, the economy, crime and security issues, and how any changes in the law could affect Jamaica's compliance with existing international anti-drug treaties.
After considering such issues, the commission will recommend legislative changes, said Patterson.
The prime minister's announcement comes in response to repeated calls for relaxation of the marijuana laws in the island nation, home to a significant population of Rastafarians who use "Jah herb" as a sacrament. Politicians from both of the island's two major parties, the Labour Party and the Peoples' National Party (PNP), have called for changes. Late last year, Mike Henry, a Labour parliamentarian from Clarendon, offered a bill calling for both a study of decriminalizing ganja for Rastafarians and the naming of Bob Marley as a National Hero. And the leadership of the PNP's powerful 3rd Region has been lobbying for decriminalization for personal use, the Gleaner reported.
Pressure has also come from church leaders and from the National Alliance for the Legalization of Ganja, headed by Paul Chang. Chang, who has been after the government on the ganja issue since 1994, brought representatives of the Drug Policy Foundation and NORML, as well as researchers Dr. John Morgan of the City University of New York and Tim Boekhout van Solinge of the University of Amsterdam to the island for a series of forums of February.
At that time, Chang told a Montego Bay forum that his group was preparing for the commercialization of ganja in a fashion similar to the Dutch model. Chang is also forming the Ganja Growers Association "in anticipation of the law," he said.
Halfway across the globe, New Zealand is also, after two years of delay, preparing its own study of cannabis decriminalization. The parliament's health select committee will review health issues related to cannabis, the committee's chairperson, Judy Keall, told the Otago Daily Times (Dunedin) on September 13th.
Keall said the committee's inquiry will "inquire into the most effective public health and health promotion strategies to minimize the use of and harm associated with cannabis and consequently the most appropriate legal status for cannabis."
The committee's work will lay the groundwork for a parliamentary debate on cannabis this term, with decriminalization the main topic of discussion. Under a proposal supported by Liberal Prime Minister Helen Clark, persons caught with small amounts of the herb would be subject only to a ticket.
According to an August poll of New Zealanders reported in the Daily Times, a solid majority want the government to either decriminalize or legalize cannabis for personal use. The UMR Insight poll found 41% believe cannabis use by adults should be punished with a fine -- not a criminal conviction -- and another 19% want outright legalization.
According to the poll, 36% of those surveyed had used cannabis, with that figure rising to 70% for those under thirty. Among the indigenous Maori, the number who had used cannabis was 56%.
The status of cannabis has become a political football in New Zealand since December 1998, when another parliamentary select committee recommended that the government consider changing its legal standing. The then-governing National Party refused to act on that recommendation and has continued to agitate against reform, most recently working with an association of school boards to launch a petition against decriminalization.
The petition drive has aroused the ire of Green Party Member of Parliament Nandor Tanczos, a Rastafarian who has said he smokes for religious reasons. He told the Dominion (Wellington) he was "appalled" that the school boards would allow themselves to "be so blatantly used for political mileage" in the National Party's anti-cannabis campaign.
Neither does Tanczos believe decriminalization is sufficient. He told the Dominion such a regime would result in "more people getting busted than ever before."
Calling prohibition a barrier to effective drug rehabilitation and education programs, Tanczos argued although cannabis is widely used in New Zealand, it is the young, the poor, and the Maoris who get arrested for it, not decision-makers. Even with a ticket and fine system, he said, many people would end up with convictions for non-payment of fines.
Also in the Pacific, the Guam Supreme has ruled in favor of permitting marijuana smoking for religious purposes.
Benny Toves Guerrero was arrested in 1991 at the territory's international airport with more than seven ounces of marijuana. Guerrero argued that he was a Rastafarian and the herb is a required sacrament of his faith.
On September 11, the Guam Supreme Court threw out his case, a ruling his lawyer told the Honolulu Advertiser was a landmark case for freedom of religion.