Jamaica: Prime Minister, Ruling Party Call for National Debate on Ganja Decrim 10/12/01

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The pace of events is quickening in Jamaica. Since the parliament-appointed National Ganja Commission issued its August report calling for the decriminalization of the personal use of marijuana (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/189.html#ganjacommission), much political jockeying has taken place within the government and the ruling Peoples National Party (PNP). But on October 1, the party's National Executive Council, meeting in Ocho Rios, formally endorsed Prime Minister P. J. Patterson's call for a parliamentary debate on whether or not to decriminalize ganja. That debate should come later this fall and will lay the groundwork for a parliamentary vote on the matter.

According to the Jamaica Observer, Patterson told the council that he agreed with the recommendations of the National Ganja Commission, but that they carry implications that need to be fully discussed and carefully evaluated. Patterson referred to the lack of provisions for lawful access to ganja, as well as the need for diplomatic efforts to avoid international repercussions.

The ruling party's decision to place decriminalization on the parliamentary calendar came only after internal sparring amidst lively press coverage since the commission's report. Early last month, a group of young intellectuals aligned with the PNP, known as the Patriots, urged the government to take a cautious approach to the proposal. The Patriots warned of an international fall-out -- referring primarily the threat of US decertification next spring -- and pointed to international treaties barring the legalization of drug use.

"The country cannot afford to take the risk of attaining the dubious distinction of pariah status over such an issue," the Patriots told the Observer.

But the prime minister was apparently more taken by the logic of Tim Boekhout van Solinge, a Dutch criminologist, who, on the same day the Patriots were worrying to the Observer, was telling the Jamaica Gleaner that Jamaica could decriminalize, should decriminalize, and should undertake an aggressive international campaign to find support.

"It would be wise right now for Jamaica to seek some support from Canada, and European countries, especially those who are also moving forward [in their drug policy]: the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Portugal and the UK," van Solinge told the newspaper. "The trend in the countries of the EU is clearly towards decriminalization, which is the general international trend," he observed. "The one big exception is the United States."

Jamaica need not violate the terms of the United Nations Conventions on drugs to effectively decriminalize, said van Solinge. "Maybe it is not wise now to formally change the law," he suggested. "Countries sometimes have to use creativity to make a policy more liberal."

But perhaps worrying about international reaction is premature. Although ganja is an integral part of Jamaican culture, it is by no means universally favored. Polling numbers have varied, but one recent reliable poll, the Stone Organization survey done on behalf of the Jamaica Observer, found 38% favoring decriminalization and 48% opposing.

Still, support for decriminalization is strong and spreading. The Jamaica Gleaner, one of the island's leading press outlets, editorialized in favor earlier this summer. "We think it is important to recognize some current realities," wrote the Gleaner. "Firstly, neither law nor gentle persuasion will ever eradicate the growth and use of ganja in this society. Secondly, chasing spliff smokers, as happens so often, is futile and counterproductive law enforcement. Policemen must know that the pungent aroma of the weed at pop music sessions and political rallies is more the rule than the exception. It is a part of the popular entertainment scene. In short, ganja is part of Jamaican culture even beyond the ritual usage that is fiercely defended on religious grounds."

Last month, Jamaica Observer columnist Dennis Forsyth urged the government to, even now, "instruct its police and courts to ease up on the arrest and detention of ganja users." Not to do so, wrote Forsythe, would expose the government to charges of cowardice before the US, whose local representatives responded shrilly and threateningly to the commission's proposals. The US State Department has not, however, yet made a formal statement on Jamaican decriminalization.

The ganja debate in parliament, in the form of a resolution put before both the House and the Senate, will occur this fall. Prime Minister Patterson told the Observer that the parliamentary debate would be free, without the party imposing any position on members. After the debate, members will vote on whether to amend the Dangerous Drugs Act.

In a move reflective of national controversy over the issue, Patterson also announced that the PNP's internal structures -- the youth and women's organizations, constituent groups, and regional executives -- will also be debating the proposal.

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