Jamaica Panel to Review Pot Decriminalization

Top government officials will review recommendations to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal and religious use in Jamaica, which is the Caribbean's largest pot exporter to the U.S.

Six Cabinet ministers in Prime Minister Bruce Golding's administration will evaluate a 2001 report by the National Commission for Ganja -- as marijuana is known locally.

The commission, which included academics and doctors and was appointed by a government led by the current opposition, argued that the drug was "culturally entrenched" in Jamaica and that moderate use had no negative health effects on most users.

It is not clear why the Jamaican government is choosing to review the decade-old report now.

On Tuesday, the Rev. Webster Edwards, who served on the commission a decade ago, voiced relief that the report would be reviewed by Cabinet members. He expressed hope that legislators might eventually loosen laws against marijuana.

"There have been many persons who have been lifelong smokers of ganja who have not moved to harder drugs at all," Edwards said. "Decriminalizing very, very small quantities will allow persons not to get strikes against them in the justice system."

Edwards stressed that the report also urged the government to step up operations against large-scale marijuana cultivation.

Though widely tolerated in public, smoking marijuana remains illegal in Jamaica, where followers of the Rastafarian minority say it is a sacrament and brings them closer to the divine. Some Jamaicans brew ganja tea to alleviate aches.

Previous efforts in Jamaica to legalize small amounts of marijuana have been scuttled because officials feared they would violate international treaties and bring sanctions from Washington.

For decades, the United States has worked with Jamaica to burn marijuana fields and carry out other anti-drug efforts. It has also provided aid to fight drug trafficking in Jamaica, the Caribbean's largest marijuana producer.

The U.S. Embassy said officials there have not been told why the Jamaican government is revisiting the issue of decriminalization from the 2001 report.

"Whatever the impetus, it's an internal Jamaican issue, and we therefore don't comment on either the debate or the outcome," spokeswoman Yolonda Kerney said.

Decriminalization, even for personal use, would cause friction with Washington and violate various treaties, including the 1988 U.N. Convention Against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Jamaica signed the accord.

The 2001 commission addressed these concerns in its report, urging the government to "embark on diplomatic initiatives ... to elicit support for its internal position and influence the international community to re-examine the status of cannabis."

Dr. Wendel Abel at the University of the West Indies Department of Community Health and Psychiatry said he is confident international treaties won't allow the island to decriminalize the drug.

But Abel also said there is "widespread support in Jamaica for decriminalization for private, personal use."

Any change in existing drug laws would have to be approved by Jamaica's Parliament.

The ministerial review of the 2001 report was first announced Monday.

- Article originally from Bloomberg Businessweek.


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