It has been 26 years since an official Jamaican commission called for the decriminalization of marijuana in the ganja-friendly Caribbean island and four years since the latest National Commission on Ganja, headed by Dr. Barry Chevannes, was empanelled. Two years ago, after months of extensive hearings, that commission also called for the decriminalization of marijuana use, and while the Jamaican government vowed to move rapidly on its recommendations, efforts to do just that have been bottled up in parliament. Now, there is movement again, and a decrim vote in parliament could come by March, according to Jamaican sources.
On November 12, the Jamaican parliament's Joint Select Committee on the Report of the National Commission on Ganja gave its imprimatur to one of the seven recommendations for ganja decrim elaborated by the commission. The panel will meet again next week to address questions on the other recommendations and hear new testimony, including appearances from Keith Stroup of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org) and Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org).
That effort is part of a push to get a decrim bill moving this session, said Member of Parliament Mike Henry, long an advocate of not just decriminalization but legalization, who is on the Joint Select Committee. "Several of us on the committee are pushing hard to get this bill before parliament, certainly during this session, which ends in March," he told DRCNet.
But Henry added that reform proponents were moving carefully to ensure that decrim is all it is supposed to be. "We are all for decrim, but we have some questions about what the word decriminalization actually means here," he said. "Will it be a civil offense? That is supposed to be the intent, but we have to be very careful because, based on our history and the behavior of our police, you may have some abuses if the law is not carefully crafted."
Paul Chang and the Coalition for Ganja Law Reform ("Ganja: Tax Regulate Control Educate") are doing their part to keep the pressure on. "We are trying to push the agenda forward and create momentum for decriminalization," Chang told DRCNet. "We are planning a national poll to make news, as well as a campaign of billboards, flyers, seminars, and activity in the streets to educate the population. And we are working with American reformers, such as NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance," Chang said.
"What I am seeing is that there is a real effort to have the decrim recommendations go to parliament before Christmas," Chang explained. "We have another committee hearing next week, when the Attorney General's office is supposed to enter its opinion. Keith Stroup and Ethan Nadelmann will testify then, and other American reform groups will enter written testimony in support. The question will be whether we can get a vote before parliament adjourns in March."
"Paul Chang asked a few individuals if they wanted to go down and testify and if they could do it without funding," said NORML's Allan St. Pierre, "and as far as I know, Keith and Ethan Nadelmann are both going down. Keith will hit all those tried and true points he always hits -- that decrim makes sense but legalization is better, that people who use marijuana are not deviants, and that every commission that has examined the topic has recommended these changes," he told DRCNet.
St. Pierre also expressed concern about the actual wording of a decrim bill. "I can almost see this passing, but with components added that would denude it and give lots of deference to the US-UN prohibitionist drug policies," he said. But while the US embassy in Kingston made some blustering noises when the ganja commission issued its report, US prohibitionists have been relatively silent on Jamaican decrim lately. "We have not seen anything like the saber-rattling we saw with Walters in Canada," St. Pierre noted. "It may be because Canada is our major trading partner. But even with US disapproval there is something almost ridiculously self-evident about marijuana law reform in a place like Jamaica, with its history, culture, and current practices."
The US is not the only opposition, Chang said. "We have to watch out for the churches down here," he said. "Some of them are very conservative."
Despite opposition at home and abroad, it appears likely that ganja decrim will finally have a vote before parliament this session. Stay tuned.