In Jamaica, from the 1800’s until the early years of the 20th century, ganja was an unregulated herb widely used as medicine, intoxicant, and religious sacrament. Even though it caused few medical or social problems, Judeo-Christian church groups and Jamaica’s white ruling elite convinced legislators to criminalize it in 1913. The country later became a signatory to international anti-marijuana treaties.
Prohibition has been a disaster for Jamaica. Tens of thousands of Jamaicans have been harassed, jailed and even killed due to enforcement of ganja laws. Yet, the island’s climate, culture, and topography are ideal for ganja cultivation, and Jamaica has become famous for potent outdoor marijuana, reggae music, and herb-infused Rastafarian religion.
In 1977, after decades of counterproductive attempts to stop Jamaicans from growing and using marijuana, the government set up an aptly-named “Joint Select Committee” to study ganja and make new policy recommendations.
The Committee rejected full legalization only because it did not believe Jamaica could legalize herb and still be in compliance with anti-narcotics treaties, but it unanimously concluded that “there was a substantial case for decriminalizing personal use of ganja.”
The Committee recommended “no punishment” for personal use of as much as two ounces of ganja by users on private premises. It recommended total legalization of medical marijuana.
The United States government, and church groups, forced the Jamaican government to ignore the 1977 committee’s recommendations. US military personnel and equipment, along with US spy agencies like the CIA and DEA, then invaded Jamaica, using Jamaican police and soldiers as proxy warriors waging a scorched earth campaign against the island’s burgeoning domestic and export marijuana trade.
The US put a naval and aerial blockade around Jamaica during the 1970’s and 80’s, unsuccessfully seeking to interdict megatons of baled and bricked Jamaican weed, much of which was being offloaded along Florida’s coastline.
During this period, America provided millions of dollars in funding for the Jamaican government’s counter-narcotics efforts. According to the US State Department, America “has provided more counter-narcotics assistance to Jamaica than to any other Caribbean country.”
US officials have long complained that Jamaicans were making a half-hearted effort to eradicate ganja. They allege that the country is the Caribbean’s biggest producer and exporter of ganja and a major transit country for cocaine destined for the US and other international markets.
In 1999, the US halved its financial support of Jamaica’s anti-marijuana efforts, in part because the Jamaican government used “cutter teams” rather than herbicides and other poisons that the US uses domestically and in places like Colombia.
Even while the US was scaling back financial and cultivation-killer support, the DEA, ATF, CIA and other US law enforcers were increasing clandestine operational activities in and around Jamaica. Like citizens in Colombia, Canada, Mexico, Afghanistan, and other countries, Jamaicans believe that the drug war is a way for the US to gain control over the internal affairs of what should be a sovereign nation. Some Jamaicans credibly suspect that US spy agencies and organized crime are smuggling guns and cocaine into Jamaica, in an attempt to destabilize the country and derail its efforts to legalize ganja.
Although direct US involvement in eradication campaigns has dwindled, US spy planes continue to conduct aerial surveys to precisely identify and target areas of cannabis cultivation; they also target boats traveling to and from Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean.
In 1999, Jamaican Senator Trevor Munroe told Cannabis Culture he was pushing legislation to set up a “National Commission of Ganja” (CC#23, Jamaican ganja journey). In November 2000, Munroe’s national Commission officially commenced a nine-month cannabis study.
The Commission was chaired by the dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of the West Indies, Professor Barry Chevannes.
Chevannes was a lauded member of the research staff for an earlier Jamaican ganja study, conducted by Vera Rubin and Lambros Comitas on behalf of the US National Institute of Mental Health in the early 1970’s. That pioneering and comprehensive study concluded that Jamaicans used marijuana to enhance work performance and health, with few negative effects.
Chevannes shared Commission duties with commissioners from a broad array of ideological and professional backgrounds, including educators, artists, clergymen, and a member of the National Council on Drug Abuse.
The Commission conducted hearings in every parish in Jamaica. It took comment from hundreds of people ? old and young, male and female, artisans, farmers, professionals, managers, unskilled and unemployed persons, police, clergy, and others who gave oral or written testimony at home and abroad.
And, in what must have been one of the inquiry’s most sought-after duties, a Commission member was selected to make a trip to Holland to see first hand how The Netherlands’ de facto decriminalization policy worked.
“We looked around the world for the latest information about ganja and policy,” Dr Chevannes told me in a recent conversation. “We believe that our report is a significant step in developing rational policies about this plant.”
Researchers told the Commission that approximately one third of the island’s residents smoke ganja on a regular basis, and that ganja use, once confined mostly to people on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, is now practiced by people from all strata of society.
A parade of experts, including scientists, police, drug abuse counselors and community leaders, testified that they supported decriminalization of ganja.
The commissioners found medical evidence and expert testimony supported the idea that cannabis is useful in decreasing severity of the following medical problems: nausea, vomiting, insomnia, chronic pain, appetite loss, glaucoma, muscle spasticity from spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis, migraine headaches, depression, and seizures.
Cannabis Culture interviewed a pioneering Jamaican medical researcher, Dr Manley West, who developed a cannabis extract ? Cannasol ? that is now a registered medicine used to treat glaucoma (CC#23, Ganja medicine in Jamaica). West and colleagues developed another product, Asmasol, based on the Cannasol research, for the treatment of cough, cold and bronchial asthma. West and the late Professor Sir John Golding developed a protocol for using a cannabis preparation in the control of pain in terminally ill patients. West has also developed a cannabis medicine that treats motion sickness.
According to West, his cannabis products are safe and effective, but the US government and its Food and Drug Administration (FDA) blocked approval for using the products in America.
“They’re depriving their citizens of useful medicines for financial and political reasons,” West complained. “Our products are medically safe and very effective, and we have proven that by scientific methods.”
Some supporters of ganja law reform told the Commission that the herb had provided them with “deep personal benefits.”
“These range from miraculous cures to relief from simple colds, but they include well-known ailments and symptoms such as asthma and glaucoma,” the Commission reported. “There were many personal testimonies of benefits from either smoking ganja or ingesting it as tea or medicine steeped in rum. We heard the tale of a woman whose beast of burden was cured from the ashes stuffed in a wound; of a man stricken as a schoolboy with dengue fever, who drank the tea and was cured overnight; of a former Jamaica Constabulary Force member whose chronic hypertension, after nineteen years of prescribed medication, completely disappeared with the now regular smoking of ganja.
Jamaican drug counselors told the Commission that ganja is not harmful enough to justify criminal penalties, and that dishonest anti-ganja propaganda made it harder for them to credibly teach young people about drug abuse.
The president of the Medical Association of Jamaica, along with the country’s premier medical officer, told the Chevannes Commission that laws criminalizing people for small amounts of ganja are “probably having a worse effect than if it had been legalized.”
Last year, Chevannes made public the Commission’s findings and recommendations.
“We advised lawmakers to amend the laws to make private, personal possession of small amounts of ganja legal,” Chevannes said.
After Jamaica’s Prime Minister publicly stated support for the Commission’s recommendations, the US embassy in Jamaica weighed in.
“The US opposes decriminalization of marijuana use,” said embassy spokesman Michael Koplovsky. “The US Government will evaluate if such proposals violate Jamaica’s commitments to 1988 United Nations anti-drug treaty.”
Other US officials said that if Jamaica loosened its ganja laws, the US would respond with economic sanctions that would cause serious harm to the already-impoverished country.
And according to US spokeswoman Orna Bloom, “The United States government opposes the decriminalization of marijuana use because it creates the perception, especially to our youth, that marijuana is not harmful, which could lead then to an increase in its use.”
In Washington, DC, Jamaican embassy spokesperson Neil Hamilton told Cannabis Culture in March, 2002 that Jamaican legislators were “still working on the details of the proposed ganja law changes.”
“It’s being discussed in our country, and between our countries,” Hamilton said. “Washington has not formally threatened us about this. We’re committed to stopping drug exports, but we also want to acknowledge the effects of the laws in our country, and the religious and medical aspects of ganja use. And, we must acknowledge the professionalism and scope of what Dr. Chevannes and his team did. We hope we will see positive developments very soon.”
? Jamaican news and events: www.jamaica-gleaner.com