On Ganja

In the wake of recent global revelations about the legitimate medicinal applications of marijuana, it has become impossible for even the most conservative among us to pretend that the ganja debate of the 1950s and ‘60s is the same debate that roils the public forum today.

Times have changed. Not only have cultural perceptions of cannabis shifted (indeed, marijuana use has now spread across all socio-economic levels), but the global political landscape has also been rearranged. For years, Caribbean leaders feared even the mere mention of the ‘ganja issue’ at the risk of attracting America’s wrath in the form of State Department ‘Travel Advisories’ and other restrictions on their venerable tourism product.

Now, that fear is gone. At the very least, it is fading fast.
Four American states – Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington – have legalised the sale and possession of marijuana for both medical and non-medical use. Last month, the Jamaican cabinet approved a bill
legalising the possession of small amounts of marijuana; the bill soon heads to the Senate for approval. Last year, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalise the growth, sale, and distribution of marijuana. Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina already decriminalised small amounts of the herb a few years ago. Guatemala’s President Molina is making efforts to legalise ganja within a year.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the 21st century’s ‘Ganja Rush’ has begun. Marijuana, like gold or parsley or thyme, will soon become a legitimate part of this region’s economic development.

For decades, governments around the world have attempted to control marijuana use by criminalising its consumption, growth and distribution. All of them have failed. Changing generational perceptions and bare financial necessity have now prompted some politicians to look at the marijuana issue anew.
The century-old campaign to criminalise marijuana has many frightening ‘accomplishments,’ even here in Antigua and Barbuda: an over-inflated prison population; crime; the epic expansion of the informal (so-called ‘black’) economy; violence; and a marked rise in ‘gang/clique’ culture. Shamed by this legacy of failure, many (even here on these traditionalist shores) are beginning to think that maybe the best way to deal with marijuana is not to criminalise it, but to regulate it.

And there is money to be made in regulation. Colorado officials report that the state brought in US $60 million in tax revenue generated from the sale of marijuana in 2014. They project US $134 million in revenue for the next fiscal year. The Colorado experiment is also instructive from a social policy perspective. When the state legalised the use and possession of marijuana in 2012, voters allocated US $40 million in marijuana-generated tax revenue to a statewide school construction fund. After only a year, the marijuana excise tax has generated US $10 million dollars for the fund.

Here at home, during this peculiar time when our national bills have forced us to put even our citizenship up for sale, surely the idea of taxing a plant does not seem so far-fetched. A 3 per cent medical marijuana tax, a 10 per cent retail tax, a 15 per cent excise tax, along with other application and license fees: it is not hard to imagine the benefits a regulated marijuana product may have for the national purse.

‘But marijuana use is bad,’ you may say. And you may be right. But cigarettes and alcohol are also ‘bad’ (some would say they are worse, in fact) and yet cigarette smokers and rum drinkers are not labelled criminals by society. Society, of course, frowns upon cigarette smokers and alcoholics, but we stop short of throwing people in jail for consuming cigarettes and rum, and our national treasury receives offerings every month from the heavy taxes levied against the distribution of cartons of Benson & Hedges and bottles of 5-year old English Harbour rum. How is marijuana any different?

In 1893, Her Majesty’s Government in India appointed seven members to form a committee known as the India Hemp Drugs Commission. The group was tasked with completing an exhaustive study of the trade, growth, distribution, sale and use of the ‘ganja’ plant throughout all of British Colonial India.
In 1895, after interviewing thousands of witnesses from over 30 cities across India, the commission’s report was published. Included among the committee’s recommendations was the following: “total prohibition of the cultivation of the Hemp plant for narcotics, and of the manufacture, sale, or use of the drugs derived from it, is neither necessary nor expedient.” The report went even further: “The policy advocated is one of control and restriction, aimed at suppressing the excessive use and restraining the moderate use within due limits.” And what did the commission suggest as means to attain these regulatory objectives? License fees and, yes, taxes.

To be sure, the decriminalisation of marijuana in Antigua & Barbuda will be no easy task. There are powerful generational prejudices to overcome. Not to mention the holy aggression of the religious and social groups who will undoubtedly see decriminalisation of the plant as an ungodly assault on the existence of youth and the institution of family.

Well, so much for good parenting.
Should we continue to be so zealous in our efforts to criminalise all social ills, it won’t be long until we have people in prison for listening to Movado or Vybz Kartel. And we would need a new jail for teenage mothers. And one for rum drinkers. And a special jail for litterers. And a gloomy dungeon for bad parents. The more we use criminalisation as a corrective measure for our social ills, the more prisons we will need.

Ultimately, it may not matter whether marijuana is decriminalised in Antigua and Barbuda. The Jamaicans are well on their way. Medicanja, the region’s first medical marijuana company, was launched in 2013 with the blessing of the Jamaican government. It is only a matter of time before Jamaica starts reporting tax revenue generated from marijuana, only a matter of time before other Caribbean islands, in pursuit of new revenue streams, start concocting their unique versions of the Jamaican ganja experiment.

It will not be long before an increasing number of Caribbean states begin generating revenue from taxing marijuana. It may, indeed, be better if Antigua & Barbuda were not counted among the number of Caribbean ‘ganja’ states. The guardians of ‘ethics’, the traditionalists, they would be pleased.

And there is the national ‘virtue’ to consider, I imagine. For when our new economic citizens arrive on their private jets, with their freshly purchased passports, their shot of rum and their lit cigar in hand, at least they will have the comfort of knowing that they are citizens of the one remaining Caribbean fortress of virtue and conservatism. And besides, our new economic citizen has a Caricom passport now – if he needs marijuana (for any reason) he could just fly to Jamaica and spend his money.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Daily OBSERVER.