Jamaica last week voted to decriminalize marijuana possession in small amounts while legalizing it for medicinal purposes. The government said it anticipated that the move could spur growth in the number of visitors to the island but also require more cross-border scrutiny.

The island's culture has long been identified with recreational and religious use of marijuana, or "herb" as it is known among Rastafarians, who smoke it for spiritual purposes.

Jamaica's government will create an agency to oversee medical marijuana sales. As for recreational use, the penalty for possessing 2 ounces or less, currently a criminal offense, will be reduced to a petty offense, and the cultivation of fewer than a half-dozen marijuana plants will be permitted.

Jamaica is looking to benefit from the growing medical-marijuana tourism industry while freeing up law enforcement to focus on larger issues, Jamaican officials said last week.

"A regime for legal production and distribution of ganja eliminates the monopoly that organized criminals now have in this area and consequently reduces their funding for criminal enterprise," Jamaica National Security Minister Peter Bunting said in a Feb. 24 statement.

The new laws could help spur a resurgent Jamaica tourism industry, as anecdotal evidence suggests that recent decisions by Colorado and Washington state to legalize both medicinal marijuana and the possession of small amounts for recreational use may have helped tourism numbers.

Last year, Jamaica, whose population of about 2.7 million is about half that of Colorado's, welcomed a record 3.5 million visitors, who spent $2.2 billion, according to the country's tourism ministry. Europe and Asia accounted for the largest visitor gains, while visitor numbers from the U.S. were up 2%.

How much Jamaica can benefit from the growing medical-tourism sector is unclear, as estimates of the size of the market vary. About 11 million people, including about 1.2 million Americans, crossed international borders for medical purposes last year. Estimates of what they spent range between $38 billion and $55 billion, or between $3,500 and $5,000 per visitor, according to the medical-tourism group Patients Without Borders.

A statement last week from the U.S. State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement said: "The United States is encouraged by assurances from the Jamaican government that it has no plans to reduce its focus on combating and dismantling transnational drug trafficking organizations, and appreciates strong cooperation with Jamaican law enforcement."

Legalization across the U.S.

Jamaica's move comes as marijuana legalization is becoming more common. Last November, residents of Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., all voted in midterm elections to legalize marijuana.

The Oregon and Alaska measures would legalize recreational pot use, similar to the laws in Washington state and Colorado.

In D.C., voters approved possession but not retail sales of marijuana. The law, which went into effect last week, also prohibits consumption of marijuana in public spaces and on all federal properties.

Alaska's law also went into effect last week, while Oregon's law goes into effect in July.

Colorado's Amendment 64, which was passed in November 2012, made it legal for adults to carry as much as 1 ounce of marijuana and allows for recreational use by those 21 and over starting in July. Medicinal-marijuana patients can carry as much as 2 ounces. Washington state passed a similar initiative.

Colorado tourism officials have maintained that last year's rise in tourism visits to Denver and its surrounding areas was a result of more convention activity, strong snowfall early in the ski season and the Denver Broncos making it to the NFL playoffs. They dismissed pot legalization as a major factor.

Still, the state's legal marijuana sales last year totaled $699.2 million, or about $130 per capita, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue. About 55% of that total was spent on medicinal marijuana.

In addition, Denver hotels' 2014 revenue per available room (RevPAR) surged 19%, marking the second-highest demand-growth rate, after Nashville, of any major U.S. market, according to STR. Seattle hotels' RevPAR was up 13%, outpacing the U.S. average by almost 4 percentage points.

At least one Colorado travel agent is convinced that pot legalization has spurred visits to the state.

"As soon as the laws changed, we were getting inquiries from people looking to partake," said Brian Harris, owner of Aspen-based Destination Site Selection, who also manages vacation rentals in the resort town.

Harris added that the amount of marijuana paraphernalia bought by vacationers was a telltale sign: "About a third of the people in our rentals are leaving stuff behind."

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