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Photo by Bogdan via Wikimedia commons
In the last days of January, the cabinet of Jamaica approved a bill for debate in the senate that many people in the country and beyond have been eagerly awaiting for years, if not decades. The proposal doesn’t have anything to do with tackling endemic corruption or pushing forward gains in the war on violent crimes—two major policy issues facing the nation. Rather, this much anticipated and celebrated bill, if passed by the senate (a highly likely outcome), will amend decades-old drug laws to decriminalize the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana, the use of weed for religious, medical, scientific, and therapeutic uses, and the creation of hemp industries.
Given Jamaica’s reputation for pot cultivation and consumption, it may seem odd that the nation even needs such a law. But that’s the point: This law will save thousands of Jamaicans from having to fear the reality of senseless and debilitating prosecution. But more even than that—and this is why so many eyes are on Jamaica’s new law nationally and internationally—it promises to ignite a new level of industry in the nation and guide the way for other regional countries to follow suit with a cascade of decriminalization and legalization actions.
Weed in Jamaica isn’t just something a few people partake in. It’s become an entrenched part of the culture. The use of pot there goes back to the 19th century, when Indian servants introduced it to the wider populace. In the following century, the plant gained currency as a cure-all. In the 1930s, it even became a sacrament for the Rastafarian religion, born on the island. In 2003, a government commission exploring the issue of marijuana declared that the herb was an inexorable part of Jamaican life. A decade later, surveys found that 66 percent of the population admitted to having smoked weed and 86 percent favored its medicinal use. And with more than 37,000 known acres of land dedicated to the crop and nearly 10 percent of the adult population regularly toking up, it’s definitely one of the highest using and per capita producing nations in the world.
Yet since 1913, the cultivation and importation of marijuana has been illegal on the island. And as criminalization ramped up, even despite the lack of full-throttle enforcement, it’s led to the arrest of up to 300 young men for possession or use every week, tarring them with a criminal record that makes it hard to travel or hold down work. These laws, clearly not reflective of majority opinions, represent old conservatism and global convergence on fairly puritanical drug policies.
Unsurprisingly, the will to decriminalize weed in Jamaica isn’t a new phenomenon. The current legal bid has actually been on the table for more than a year, with debate opening up as early as 2013. All through 2014 a number of grassroots national activist organizations pushed the conversations forward. And until recently all such attempts were stymied by fears that America, as part of its monomaniacal and increasingly futile “Drug War,” would retaliate against any attempt at marijuana normalization with sanctions and legal entanglements via international treaty enforcement.
But with legalization spreading across the United States, where public sentiment is rapidly changing, and Uruguay proving that a small nation can pass progressive marijuana legislation without facing apocalyptic wrath from America, Jamaican lawmakers now clearly feel they have the space to act. This is a clear victory for democracy over looming American cultural imperialism.
Granted, the new law is not a total revolution for Jamaica. It will remain illegal to grow, trade, or possess any appreciable amount of marijuana. Some suspect these continued restrictions are just an opening for cops to keep making the pocket cash they take in by shaking down cultivators and vendors for bribes.
Photo by Cannabis Training University via Wikimedia commons
But even this basic change to Jamaica’s laws could overhaul the local justice system, economy, and social scene. It will unclog courts and the schedules of cops laden down with small cases. It will also clear the records of those previously arrested on such charges, making it far easier for thousands to find better employment. New industries will spring up (in addition to now quasi-legitimized marijuana tourism) centered around medicinal research and hemp production, creating jobs, markets, and potential prestige. And the law will be a huge win for the rights of Rastafarians to practice their faith freely. Not bad for one foregone conclusion of a bill.
The law has huge implications beyond Jamaica’s borders as well. Many suspect that nations throughout the Caribbean (and beyond) have been watching Jamaica to see how a sudden, legally monumental reform in a nation so close to the U.S. fares, both with the nation’s conservatives and their big, bad next-door neighbor. Seeing how easy the move towards decriminalization has been, they may just follow suit, initiating a cascade of decriminalization and legalization bids in the run-up to the United Nations’ 2016 discussion on weed.
“The world is looking at Jamaica to be a pioneer in drug reform in the Caribbean,” explained Hannah Hetzer, a policy manager at America’s Drug Policy Alliance, in 2014.
Now they’ve set a clear example—representative, beneficial, and motivated by internal pragmatism and respect rather than fear of global ire. That’s a strong precedent, and one we can only hope will lead directly towards similar legalization movements across the globe.