Towards a pragmatic drug policy
I’ve never smoked as much as spliff of marijuana in my entire life. Not that there weren’t many opportunities, especially during my youth when all of us are easily vulnerable to undue influence of one kind or another. But in the same way that I made a deliberate choice against smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, except socially, I took a similar decision that smoking weed was not for me, despite peer pressure.
Growing up in the 1970s, marijuana was relatively new on the scene and its recreational use was not as widespread as today. My decision not to follow the few who indulged was largely influenced by the mainstream view that smoking marijuana was bad for you. Almost every piece of available literature back then, as well as the “competent” authorities who spoke, underscored the danger to one’s health.
I’ve come around, however, to softening my opposition somewhat as a result of following the current international debate for the decriminalization of marijuana over the last few years. The beauty of getting older is that experience imparts the wisdom that it is always best to be open-minded when dealing with an issue in order to see all sides dispassionately and arrive at an independent conclusion.
From the growing body of research findings to convincing testimonies from persons suffering from various ailments, the evidence seems incontrovertible that marijuana consumption does offer benefits in the form of helping to alleviate the discomfort of various medical challenges. It seems the late Peter Tosh was right after all.
In a well-known mid-1970s reggae hit which became an anthem for legalization, he contended: “It’s good for the flu, a good for asthma. Good for tuberculosis, even umara composis. Got to legalize it, don’t criticize it.”
In the last few years, a steadily growing list of countries, including Tosh’s own Jamaica, seems to have started finally to heed his advice. Uruguay, for example, became the first country in the world to completely legalize marijuana. Chile, a South American neighbour, opted
not to go as far but reclassified marijuana from a “hard” to “soft” drug, thus placing it the same category of alcohol. Mexico’s Supreme Court also ruled that the “absolute prohibition” of cannabis was unconstitutional.
Canada, under the new Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is moving towards legalization which, some observers say, can come as early as this year. It will be the fulfilment of an election campaign promise.
Next door, in the United States, which influenced the worldwide crackdown on marijuana back in the 1930s, 23 states and the District of Columbia have so far legalized marijuana in some form. Opening up access for medical purposes was a major reason.
Decriminalizing possession of small amounts for personal use has been a feature of the policy change. Former Uruguayan president José Mujica, whose progressive administration took the historic step on December 20, 2013, said the main objective was to seize the market from illegal drug dealers rather than encourage people to smoke weed.
“There has always been a conservative and reactive opinion that fears change. The sad part is that a man who is almost 80 has to come and propose a youthful openness to a conservative world . . . ,” said Mujica, referring to himself in an interview.
In Uruguay, private citizens are allowed to cultivate up to six plants in their houses and can form private clubs that produce significantly more. All sales, however, must be done through a network of government-owned dispensaries.
Each customer is required to register with the Ministry of Health and will be restricted to buying about 1.4 ounces per month at a price set by the government. The policy is tightly regulated and not a case of anything goes.
Critical examination of global trends suggests the time has come for Barbados to revisit its long-standing policy of no tolerance through adopting a more pragmatic approach on the issue of marijuana. Let’s be frank about it. Government’s attempt over the past 50 years to rid the island of marijuana has failed. The illegal trade has become bigger and consumption today is far more widespread.
Besides, compared with cocaine and harder drugs, a growing number of Barbadians no longer see marijuana as evil and dangerous. They seem to have a valid point. From my own observation, alcohol seems to have ruined far more lives than marijuana. Yet alcoholic beverages are easily accessible because they are legal.
Interestingly, British health authorities this past week introduced tough new guidelines on the consumption of alcohol, after new research evidence showed that there is no such thing as a safe level of drinking as previously believed.
“There is no justification for recommending drinking on health grounds –– nor for starting drinking for health reasons,” the new guidelines make clear.
There is no need for me to detail the dangers of cigarette smoking. The deadly damage to health is well documented; but cigarettes too are legal.
On the evidence, a case exists for a review of Barbados’ marijuana policy, which stands in sharp contrast with official tolerance of alcohol and cigarettes. The policy, unfortunately, is criminalizing and incarcerating a lot of Barbadians, mostly young men, caught with small amounts. The outcry over a recent case in which a middle-aged St James man was remanded for three days on a charge of having a small quantity of weed, probably signals a turning point in public opinion on the issue.
Anyone reading the court pages of the local Press can see that the prosecution of mostly young men for smoking a spliff or having small amounts of weed is taking up a lot of valuable police and court time. It was refreshing, therefore, to hear Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite say earlier this week that he believes young people found with small amounts should not be sent to jail. Mr Brathwaite, however, needs to translate words into action
to make a difference.
Jamaica has led the way within the CARICOM group by reforming its legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts and also to set the stage for developing a medical marijuana industry, which will open up a new revenue stream to benefit the government and, by extension, country. It is clear, from current trends, that marijuana for medicinal purposes will become a major industry. Barbados, therefore, will miss out on the opportunity if it continues to cling to an archaic policy.
My own research has found that in the late 19th century, marijuana was a popular ingredient in many medicinal products sold openly at pharmacies in the United States. Before that, there was a marijuana industry related to the production of rope, sails for ships and clothing. Recreational use of marijuana, however, was introduced to the United States early in the last century by Mexican immigrants who flooded across the border following the 1910 Mexican revolution.
“The drug became associated with the immigrants, and the fear and prejudice about the Spanish-speaking newcomers became associated with marijuana. Anti-drug campaigners warned against the encroaching ‘marijuana menace’, and terrible crimes were attributed to marijuana and the Mexicans who used it,” said an eye-opening article on the PBS website.
Racism, therefore, was a major factor in the American prohibition of marijuana. It was more the product of irrational scaremongering than scientific evidence. Is there room in Barbados in the enlightened 21st century for a marijuana policy based on scaremongering? The facts are there.
Despite the benefits, there’s no denying that marijuana use has obvious dangers. However, these do not seem, based on the evidence, to be substantially greater, as we were led to believe, than the dangers associated with alcohol or cigarettes.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and long-standing journalist.