Columns

The sheep herd factor and ganja

Anthony Gomes

Wednesday, January 02, 2013    

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IN the event of the US administration choosing to jump off a cliff, fiscal or geological, is Jamaica obliged to follow like a herd of sheep? This scenario applies to the decriminalisation of marijuana by certain states in the Union, defying federal law that prohibits use of the drug for various purposes including recreation. First off, Jamaica has "bigger fish to fry" than devoting precious time and attention away from its economic rescue programme, to consider decriminalising ganja.

Supporters of decriminalisation for use of small quantities of ganja for recreational, health and religious purposes propose firstly, it would reduce the number of court cases that overburden the judicial system, and secondly, provide more time for police to pursue incidents of major crime. The first proposal overlooks the Drug Court established in 2001 that sits in each parish and deals with minor offenders found with small amounts of narcotics such as a "spliff". First-time offenders are warned by the magistrate without charge, but would be entered into a drug rehabilitation programme in the event of a second offence.

The call for cannabis to be permitted for use in medicinal preparations has already been dealt with, as ganja's properties have already been recognised and developed in Jamaica. This is illustrated by Dr Manley West and Dr Albert Lockhart, the originators of Canasol, Asmasol and Cantimol for the treatment of glaucoma and asthma. It must, however, be emphasised, according to Dr Lockhart, "in our medicines we do not use tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)" — the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.

Synthetic THC can be found in Marinol and Dronabinol that have been available by prescription for many years. Dronabinol, and Marinol approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have been licensed in the US for use in appetite stimulation in AIDS patients and to prevent nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. With Marinol available in pill form, why choose to smoke ganja that contains roughly 30 times more carcinogens than tobacco smoke and therefore puts smokers at significantly higher risk for developing lung cancer?

The GOJ has been chided for not decriminalising ganja in defiance of its obligations under international law. This indicates a misunderstanding of Jamaica's responsibilities under the various treaties to which it is a signatory. Two of Jamaica's legal luminaries, Michael Hylton, a former Solicitor General, and Stephen Vasciannie, now Jamaica's Ambassador in Washington, stated clearly that Jamaica's membership of the international treaties regulating dangerous drugs does not permit the decriminalisation of ganja. To ignore these factual warnings could lead to US decertification and unspecified international sanctions.

Michael Hylton's warning referred to the following treaties that are binding on Jamaica: The Single Narcotics Convention, The Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. "Jamaica would be in breach of its treaty obligations if Parliament were to remove criminal sanctions with respect to these activities". To suggest that the influence of North American and European countries should be disregarded in the matter of potential decertification ignores the fact that their much needed foreign aid is funded by the taxpayers of donor countries, so it is their business if and when such unorthodox action occurs.

The protagonists conceptualise that liberalising the use of ganja would be akin to a panacea for Jamaica's economic problems. Glowing North American and European reports are submitted as indicative of a market of inestimable proportions for the cultivation and sale of marijuana, which would result in a significant reduction in abuse of the drug. The belief that the use of ganja would decline after being decriminalised is not supported by recent numbers provided by the National Council on Drug Abuse. Drug abuse among 11 to 19-year-olds in a 2006 survey, shows that alcohol accounted for 71 per cent of abusers and 24 per cent in the case of ganja users. This suggests that alcohol is the most abused drug because it is legal and readily available, as opposed to ganja that is still subject to criminal sanctions.

It is difficult to attribute any creditability to this inexplicable level of euphoria. How would future investors view a nation of potheads that would include the workforce? Would they want to risk their venture capital in such an environment where unpredictable mood swings are the order or the day? Many simplistic comparisons have been made with other mature societies that have modified their dangerous drug laws. The British Government reclassified cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug. Reclassification is not synonymous with decriminalisation, and the production and possession of cannabis remains illegal. However, they have since reclassified cannabis again to a class B drug, with the discovery that contemporary marijuana contains a much higher percentage of THC than in earlier varieties. The new version called "Skunk" poses a serious threat to both the physical and mental health of its users.

Decriminalisation should be rejected at this time. The government should use the Drug Court which can produce the result sought, to allow the smoker of a "spliff" to be ticketed without it being a criminal offence. The second offence should be referred back to the Drug Court for resolution.

The pro-ganja lobby remains a minority, whose reasons for wanting decriminalisation of ganja is self-serving and not in the national interest. It is said; "We have more degrees, but less common sense, more knowledge but less judgment". That is certainly true when considering the issue of dangerous illegal drugs.

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