Jamaica may be one step closer to legalizing marijuana. The government announced plans on June 2 to partially decriminalize possession of small amounts of ganja, as the locals call it, and to allow possession for religious, scientific and medical purposes.
As of now, selling, distributing, buying, carrying and using ganja (the Sanskrit word for hemp) is against the law in Jamaica, which could come as a surprise to many visitors, given its availability and the ease of obtaining the giant joints known as spliffs.
However, it is not yet legal.
Encouraged by legalized pot in Colorado, Washington state and Uruguay, it appears that some Jamaican politicians are backing an effort to transform an underground economy into a source of taxable revenue.
Mark Golding, Jamaica’s minister of justice, said the government is backing a proposal to make possession of no more than two ounces of marijuana a petty offense that would result in a fine but not a criminal arrest.
Ticketed offenders would be able to pay their fine outside of Jamaica’s court system and there would be no criminal record.
Another proposed change would expunge the criminal records of people convicted for possession of small amounts of the drug, according to Golding.
Golding also announced that marijuana would be decriminalized for religious purposes, which would be a victory for the Rastafarians who consider smoking marijuana a sacred act but have faced the possibility of prosecution for doing so.
“The proposed changes to the law are not intended to promote or give a stamp of approval to the use of ganja for recreational purposes,” Golding said in his statement on reforms to the laws relating to marijuana. “The objective is to provide a more enlightened approach to dealing with possession in small quantities.”
This latest proposal, introduced by Golding, could come before a vote in Parliament before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, visitors to Jamaica are warned that buying, using and transporting ganja out of the country is illegal.
Despite that, visitors are routinely approached on the street, in markets and on the beach by vendors who want to deal.
A check with the St. James Police Division in Montego Bay as to how many visitors a year are charged with possession was met with a “no comment” statement by a police spokesman.
Jamaica has studied the pros and cons of this issue for years. A 1977 Joint Select Committee of Parliament that reviewed ganja use and legislation stopped short of recommending its legalization but noted there was a substantial case for decriminalization for personal/private use with no penalties for up to two ounces.
In 2001, the National Commission on Ganja endorsed the same recommendations, adding that a public education program should be set up to discourage use by young people.
At that time, the Cannabis Research Agency was established in collaboration with other countries to coordinate research into all aspects of ganja.
Reaction among other Caribbean countries to Jamaica’s proposal was mixed.
St. Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves is leading an effort to have Caribbean leaders study the social, legal and public health impact of legalizing ganja use.
“It is an idea whose time has come,” Gonsalves said. “We cannot continue with the drug policies we have had over the years.”
The Cannabis Movement of St. Lucia, however, expressed concern over Jamaica’s move to implement changes regarding possession and smoking of marijuana.
The group claimed that the move broke ranks with the position adopted by the 15 member nations of the Caribbean Community to deal with the marijuana issue on a regional basis.
Photo of marijuana plant courtesy of Shutterstock.com