IT WOULD have seemed a lot more revolutionary just two years ago but for Jamaica, it is still a welcome whiff of sense. The island’s energy minister, Philip Paulwell, who also leads government business in parliament, has said he will find time this year to decriminalise possession of small amounts of marijuana. At a stroke, the move will cut the number of illicit smokes by as many as a million a week. It will also make a Jamaican break somewhat less nervy for ganja-puffing tourists.
Reform proposals have been knocking around for some time: a National Commission on Ganja recommended decriminalisation in 2001. But helped by moves towards legalisation in Uruguay and decriminalisation in the United States, momentum has been growing. A Cannabis Future Growers and Producers Association was launched last month, and a commercial company to support medical marijuana in December.
Selling for less than five dollars an ounce, ganja has a long history in Jamaica, going all the way back to 19th-century Indian immigrants. Cultivation and import have been illegal since 1913, but everyone’s granny remembers when the herb was quite openly on sale as a cure-all. Some of the early work on medicinal uses for marijuana was done in Jamaica in the 1970s and 1980s.
In practice, most small-time ganja users are not arrested or prosecuted. But for those who are, the consequences can be dire. A criminal record makes it hard to get a coveted American visa or to land jobs in Jamaica itself. For that reason alone, reform looks like a surefire vote-winner.
Decriminalisation will also unclog the courts and free up police time. But it won’t change the big picture. It will remain illegal to grow and trade marijuana in large quantities, something that suits the big players just fine. Full legalisation would knock the bottom out of the market, hurting the island’s powerful criminal gangs. It would also curtail the potential for extortion; seven police officers appeared in court this month to face allegations that they took a $2,750 bribe from a businessman in return for overlooking a ganja find on his premises.
Jamaicans are prone to waves of moral panic, but the proposal to decriminalise ganja has caused barely any waves. The foreign minister AJ Nicholson and the opposition leader, Andrew Holness, have expressed mild reservations; the vocal church lobby has been silent. Says a well-educated and dreadlocked Jamaican: “Most of them accept that there are people who do this, just like there are people who drink.” Such tolerant sentiments only go so far, however. The “abominable crime of buggery” carries a prison sentence of up to ten years, and the government has no plans to right that injustice.