Green Gold: Can Jamaica Really Profit from Marijuana Legalization?
In late January, the Jamaican Parliament passed a bill that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana (less than 2 ounces). This is a really surprising, but timely move by the Jamaican government. In spite of marijuana being so intrinsically tied into Jamaican culture, thank to the Rastafarians, the laws of the country have prohibited its possession and use since 1913. While Jamaica was never as heavy handed on drug offenses as the United States, the illegal status of marijuana did give ammunition to the Jamaican authorities to bring criminal charges against countless offenders; often in the situation where if they liked you, they would turn a blind eye. But if you rubbed them the wrong way, then they could haul you down to the station and charge you.
It seems that Jamaica has grown hip to the changing climate globally in regards to marijuana decriminalization. In all honesty, I thought that this would have happened much sooner in Jamaica, especially when the success of weed tourism in the Netherlands proved that you could tolerate marijuana use, and not have society implode itself. Interestingly enough, the Netherlands actually allots for a lesser amount, 5 grams, for personal use. However the Netherlands allows public use, and it is fully legal. Whereas in Jamaica (similar to the states of California and New York in the United States), it is simply decriminalized.
Medicinal Marijuana Paving the Road to Legitimacy
America’s persistent War on Drugs has thrown marijuana into the same category as heroin and cocaine; effectively disregarding any positive medicinal benefit that could be derived from the plant. Back in the 1970s, Jamaica developed the first commercial medical product derived from cannabis, Canasol, which is used in the treatment of glaucoma. Since then, the United States has slowly softened its stance, with 23 states (currently) legalizing medical marijuana. This opens the door to further research and development in the marijuana/cannabis pharmaceutical industry. And when it comes to pharmaceuticals, the potential is huge. It is estimated that the outsourced pharmaceutical market is around $33 billion dollars. This obviously goes beyond just putting some high grade indica in your Top rolling paper and smoking it. Although there is also a need for that as well among medicinal marijuana consumers. Of course, that means being able to cultivate a product that is in demand. And that’s where things could potentially get hairy.
Ganja Farmers, or Ganja Scientists?
When it comes to growing marijuana, there is definitely a science behind it. When it comes to fine-tuning the quality and output of your crop yield, indoor growing (a la Weeds) is more reliable than outdoor growing. You can also harvest more times per year as well. The downside? Well there are a few, but the biggest one is startup costs. The equipment needed for indoor marijuana growing is expensive. It is also much more labor intensive.
Most Jamaican marijuana growers plant their crops outside. Some users say that the taste of outdoor grown marijuana buds is superior. However in the marketplace, indoor grown buds generally sell for more, mostly due to the variety and consistency available. While this alone should not scare Jamaican marijuana growers away from the American marijuana market, it is something that should be kept in mind. It’s not like Jamaica is the only one pushing its wares on global marijuana users. In fact, with the increasing numbers of growers in the United States (due to legalization and decriminalization), Jamaica may not even have a seat at the big kids table. Plus, the requirements of medicinal grade marijuana (free from contamination), almost require that the product be grown indoors. Even so, Canada has expressed interest in contracting with Jamaican marijuana growers to import the crop when the applicable laws enable this to happen.
Can Jamaica Become a True Stoner’s Paradise?
Tourism in Jamaica generates anywhere from $2-$3 billion annually and accounts for more than 1/2 of the influx of foreign currency to the island and about 1/4 of the island’s overall employment. And if Jamaica plays their cards right, similar to Colorado, who collected more than $10 million dollars in tax revenue from the sale of marijuana in the first six months of legalization, the ground can be fertile for establishing a profitable sub-industry of weed tourism. In fact, some have already been doing this unofficially, where some Jamaican growers offer to give tourists a walk of their grounds for a fee. And to be honest, in spite of the Jamaican government’s efforts to disassociate the island from marijuana culture, they’ve largely failed. Jamaica still has an almost mythical marketing pull on all things marijuana related.
Now who’s willing to put that brand to work?
Leading or Lagging? Avoiding Pitfalls and Past Mistakes
Some say that Jamaica’s actions are too little, too late. That it’s a quasi desperate move to try to stimulate the Jamaican economy; if not by opening the door to trade, then at least by relieving the burden on the Jamaican justice system with enforcing and prosecuting small-time marijuana offenders. But there are plenty of Jamaicans who are weary of it all. They are not exactly excited to sign on for a system similar to what Uruguay set up. Uruguay made the news worldwide in 2013 by becoming the first country in the world to fully legalize marijuana. What has happened is that similar to the American tobacco industry, an individual can grow their own marijuana, but all sales go through the government. The problem is, the government has been slow to create the necessary infrastructure to support the market. So this keeps the black market alive. It also gives fodder to the opposing political party to threaten to repeal legalization, on the grounds of being a problem to the government, if they were to come into power. And if it’s one thing that Jamaica doesn’t need, it’s more political infighting.
With that being said, Jamaica is still the first Caribbean country to embark into this previously uncharted territory. St. Lucia, Trinidad & Tobago and Antigua all have leaders who have addressed the topic. They acknowledged at CARICOM meetings that Jamaica is a leader in this area and are watching to see how they can make similar legislative moves in their own respective countries. Perhaps this is the type of peer pressure that Jamaica needs in order to make the right moves to turn marijuana from a proverbial villain, to an economic friend.