Jamaica's National Commission on Ganja is winding down after working since last fall to reexamine the island nation's marijuana policies. Led by Dr. Barry Chevannes, dean of social sciences at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, the seven-member, government-appointed panel has visited eleven parishes and heard from more than 150 people and institutions. Hearings will continue through the summer before the commission's final report is turned over to Prime Minister PJ Patterson in August.
Although an interim report the commission turned over to the government last month gave no direct indication of whether it will recommend decriminalization of the weed widely used in Jamaica, comments by Chevannes at that time suggest that decrim may well be the commission's final recommendation.
"It may be deduced so far that most persons and organisations would support the decriminalization of the use of ganja for private purposes and in private spaces," Chevannes told the Jamaica Gleaner, although he also noted that a minority preferred to "maintain the status quo regarding the criminal status of ganja in Jamaica."
The commission heard from artisans, skilled workers and professional and managerial workers, as well as from a number of organizations, including the National Democratic Movement, the Medical Association of Jamaica, Jamaica Manufacturers Association, the Scientific Research Council and the Rastafarian Centralization Organisation, the Gleaner reported.
The commission recognized the broad popularity of ganja among Jamaicans and suggested that decriminalization would merely regularize the status quo. "One opinion on the commission is that [decriminalization] would not significantly increase the use of marijuana," Chevannes said. "Right now, anyone who wants to smoke ganja is virtually at liberty to do so. It is freely available at large gatherings. And, indeed, if police were to arrest everyone who's doing it, tens of thousands would be in jail."
Still, Chevannes pointed out, Jamaican police arrest about 5,000 people on ganja charges each year, 90% of them for minor offenses. "So, arguably, the only thing the decriminalization of it would be doing is taking the status of a crime off thousands of people," Chevannes said. "And most of them are young people. Were the commission to recommend decriminalization, it would not seriously change anything here."
But Chevannes said the commission also had to keep in mind the "external consequences" of any decision to decriminalize marijuana in Jamaica. A poor nation, Jamaica could find its access to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other funding sources blocked by the United States. If it were to be certified as not complying with US drug war objectives, the country could also be cut off from any direct US financial assistance.
Chevannes pointed to the hard-line attitude of the US government as a real concern for Jamaica. Citing the Supreme Court's recent ruling on medical marijuana, Chevannes noted that, "The US, in the kind of mood it is in today, well, this matter will be one for the commission to weigh."
But Chevannes also pointed to another "external consequence" of any decision to decriminalize. Other marijuana-producing Caribbean nations could opt to follow Jamaica's lead, he said, creating a legal regional marijuana industry.
In its latest annual report on the global drug trade, the US State Department characterized Jamaica as "the largest Caribbean producer and exporter of marijuana" and noted with concern the existence of the ganja commission. As of June 1, US government funds are paying the entire salaries of the "marijuana cutters" employed by the Jamaican Defense Forces in its eradication efforts. (Jamaica refuses to allow the use of herbicides in its program.) For the last year, the US paid half their salaries. US and Jamaican efforts resulted in the seizure of more than 55 tons of marijuana in 1999, the report said.
Still, according to the Los Angeles Times, marijuana remains plentiful in Jamaica, selling on the island for roughly $26 per pound. Ganja remains an integral part of life in the land of Rastas and reggae. The only question now is whether the Jamaican government will bring its policies in line with that reality.