The Jamaican National Ganja Commission appointed last year by Prime Minister PJ Patterson has finished its work. Last week, after months of hearings across the island nation, the commission recommended the decriminalization of ganja (marijuana) for personal use by adults and in religious rituals. Foreshadowing a heavy-handed political intervention in Jamaican domestic affairs, US embassy officials in Kingston quickly declared that the US would oppose any such move and threatened Jamaica with decertification.
Between 20% and 40% of Jamaicans smoke the weed, including members of the Rastafarian faith, who use it as a sacrament, and ganja's "reputation among the people as a panacea and a spiritually enhancing substance is so strong it must be regarded as culturally entrenched," the commission found.
"The overwhelming majority share the view that ganja should be decriminalized for personal, private use," the commission reported. "The prosecution of simple possession for personal use itself diverts the justice system from what ought to be a primary goal, namely the suppression of the criminal trafficking in substances, such as crack cocaine, that are ravaging urban and rural communities with addiction and corrupting otherwise productive people."
Prosecuting people simply for possessing marijuana is "unjust" and discredits the legitimacy of the Jamaican legal system, the commission said.
Composed of scientists, public health experts, and academics, and chaired by University of the West Indies head of the Faculty of Social Sciences Dr. Barry Chevannes, the commission also recommended an intensive education and prevention program be created, that Jamaican law enforcement increase its efforts to thwart large-scale ganja growing and prevent trafficking of other drugs, and that Jamaica proactively seek diplomatic support for its position. Decriminalization would not bring Jamaica into violation of international anti-drug treaties, the commission said.
Prime Minister Patterson has yet to comment on the call to decriminalize, but one of his aides, Ralston Smith told the Associated Press: "My gut feeling is that the commission's recommendations will be followed."
Such changes will require parliamentary approval and will demand amending the Dangerous Drugs Acts of 1984 and 1996.
The idea is already gaining more support. The National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA) and the Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) have both come out in favor of decrim since the report was issued last week. "The Council is going along with the general feeling throughout the world that you should not be deemed a criminal for smoking a spliff," NCDA chairman Dr. Charles Thesiger told the Jamaica Gleaner. "The dilemma now is for the lawmakers to decide how to draft a law which can balance decriminalizing ganja use with other aspects of the laws about ganja."
MAJ president Dr. Winston Dawes told the Gleaner his association believes private, personal use of ganja should not be a criminal offense despite the harmful consequences of smoking it. "We will, however, continue to educate people about the harmful effects of smoking in general, and if they want to go ahead and use the 'poison' then that is up to them," he said.
The commission didn't go far enough for high-ranking People's National Party member Paul Burke. "It is a welcome step, but it is far short for a country where tens of thousands of people use ganja," he told Knight Ridder News Service. Burke, who is a member of the National Alliance for Legalization, added: "Ganja offenses have clogged up the court system for years and diverted police from the real problems, which are crack and cocaine. That's the real threat to Jamaica."
But if Jamaica attempts to implement ganja decrim, there is another threat looming over the northern horizon: the US government. The US embassy in Kingston wasted no time making its position clear, and that was just a taste of the pressure to come from Washington if Jamaica moves toward decriminalization.
"The US administration opposes the decriminalization of marijuana use," embassy spokesman Michael Koplovsky told the Gleaner the day after the report was released. Then he threatened Jamaica if it went ahead despite US opposition. "The US government will consider Jamaica's adherence to its commitments under the 1988 UN Drug Convention when making its determination under the annual narcotics certification review."
Certification is an annual stamp of approval unilaterally placed on countries by the United States if it determines that they are adequately complying with US drug war objectives. Widely loathed in Latin America, where it is viewed as an arrogant American imposition, the certification law cuts off aid to countries that fail US standards and instructs US representatives at international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to vote against loan packages for such countries.
The US comments prompted an angry response from sociologist Dr. Dennis Forsythe, who in 1997 won a landmark court case acknowledging his right to use and possess ganja for religious purposes. Saying that decriminalization would "satisfy a basic need of the Jamaican people," Forsythe denounced the US decertification threat as a hypocritical attack on Jamaica's sovereignty.
"This is a domestic affair. It is a recommendation for self-help, not to export ganja, so we are not imposing it on anybody," he told the Gleaner. "The commission's recommendation is in keeping with the sentiments of the Jamaican people. If America is so much for democracy, then to deny us certification because of this is in flagrant breach of such principles," he said.