Ganja: crucial line now drawn

Jamaica Observer
Wednesday, September 5, 2001


THE seven-member Ganja Commission chaired by Dr Barry Chevannes, UWI sociologist, fulfilled its assignment clearly and unequivocally and its recommendations are concise, unambiguous and reasonable. Stability and reduction of social alienation in the region depend on Jamaica coming to terms with this ganja issue, and these recommendations can be the start of this healing process.

Those recommendations are empirically based on interviews and correspondence with some 400 people from “all walks of life” and on “reviews of the most up-to-date body of medical and scientific research”. As such, these recommendations are “scientific” and reflect objectively the result of Social Science methodology. They are also people-based or democratic, reflecting the will of the Jamaican people in microcosm.

These recommendations are framed in such a way as to achieve a national consensus around the issue of ganja, and already just two weeks after the report, the National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA) and the Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) have for the first time come out in support of the proposed liberalisation of the law. One TV poll conducted shortly after showed 63 per cent Jamaicans in support of decriminalisation. In the days and weeks ahead, more and more voices in support will be publicly heard. The JLP, through its various spokespersons, have all expressed the need to liberalise the law and those recommendations are very much consistent with Mr Edward Seaga’s training as a cultural anthropologist, inter alia. Paul Burke’s view that these recommendations do not go far enough, does not detract from the emerging national consensus around the issue, but strengthens it.

These recommendations are consistent with what is happening in the rest of the world and is in keeping with the view expressed by President Jimmy Carter in a speech to the US Congress in 1977: “The penalties against the possession of any drug should not be more damaging to the individual than the use of the drug itself.” In the words of the Ganja Commission: “The practice of criminalising the users of small quantities does far more harm than good to the society” and “is a major source of disrespect and contempt for the legal system as a whole.”

The early reaction of the Americans to these recommendations, through its embassy officials here in Kingston, is one of opposition and threat of retaliation through “de-certification”, which would mean the cessation of various American and international aid packages to Jamaica for any failure to co-operate satisfactorily with the Americans in their “war on drugs”. In the present Jamaican context, de-certification would mean de-stabilisation.

The early reaction by the Americans was not a considerate or rational reaction but an automatic or instinctive reaction based on long-standing policy. It is to be expected that as the popularity of the Jamaican recommendations become manifest, the Americans will be suaded to reconsider their position or face outright confrontation with the Jamaican people led by its government and/or Opposition.

The Americans must recognise and credit Jamaica with a national cultural uniqueness from which Rastafari, as a significant world religious movement, has grown up centreing on the use of ganja and the signing and chanting of reggae music and personified in Robert Nesta Marley and his heritage. The Americans must be made to see that their “war on drugs” has become in Jamaica a “war against Rastas” and a suppression of their religion. To the Americans, religious freedom is precious and is a religion. In US v Bauer (9th Circ 1996) the US Court of Appeal declared, “It is among the 1558 groups sufficiently stable and distinctive to be identified as one of the existing religions in this country.”

The Americans must be made to see that the Ganja Commission is right in holding that de-criminalisation as proposed will not break any UN conventions of which Jamaica was a signatory so long as use remains at the local and private level, because at this level use is already protected by the constitutional “Right of Privacy”. Holland has de-criminalised use of “soft drugs” years ago and yet Holland remains viable and firmly a member of the international community.

The crucial line having been drawn, it is now a question of how soon this government (or the next) will carry into effect the recommendations of the commission, even where this may conflict with dictates of American policy. It should, even at this stage, instruct its police and courts to ease up on the arrest and detention of ganja users. Not to act forthrightly in a situation where there is clear direction and support to act would condemn this government to a charge of impotence and of “bowing”. The government’s plan to debate these recommendations in Parliament shortly, after which MPs will vote on whether to implement them, including an Amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act, is a procedure necessary to solidify support. This debate is likely to build greater national consensus around the issue from the dissemination of information that is plentifully available from the internet and elsewhere on the issue. This issue will provide an easy occasion for a national consensus not seen before here for a long time.