The first medical marijuana company in Jamaica launched on Tuesday, the latest sign that the country might be ready to reform its pot laws.
The new venture, called MediCanja, says it will be a kind of one-stop shop for marijuana products, developing new strains of cannabis and pharmaceuticals, creating pot-based cosmetics and cultivating hemp.
Medical marijuana isn’t explicitly legal in Jamaica, but government leaders have given strong indications that change could be coming soon.
“Jamaica can’t lock off itself from the rest of the world or the research findings that are available,” Minister of Health Fenton Ferguson said at a rotary club meeting in Kingston late last month. “I want that to be very, very clear, that when it comes to medical marijuana, I am fully on board.”
Speculation about medical weed is only one part of the shifting mood around cannabis in Jamaica, where pot smoking has long been a part of the culture.
Here are some reasons ganja might be close to getting a green light:
Push for decriminalization
Pot has been prohibited in Jamaica since 1913. Even though a 2001 study found that nearly half of Jamaicans had tried marijuana, possession is still a crime.
Now things are changing.
In late September and early October, the Jamaican Parliament debated the decriminalization of small amounts of ganja, exposing “sharp divisions” on the issue among members, according to the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper.
However, a symbolic vote in favor of marijuana decriminalization passed Jamaica’s House of Representatives on October 8 “without a voice of dissent,” according to the Gleaner.
The vote didn’t actually change the country’s ganja laws, but shows that Jamaica’s House -- it’s most powerful legislative body -- backs reform.
The country’s minister of justice, Mark Golding, said that shifting policies in the U.S. has given the decriminalization effort room to breathe, and he’s exploring the possibility of legislation.
"In light of international developments, particularly in this hemisphere, particularly the United States, the situation has changed,” he said in October. “I think it's an appropriate time for us to look at reforms in this area.”
In 2001, a parliamentary committee recommended that the nation decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, but blowback from the U.S. stalled that effort.
The landscape for legal marijuana in the U.S, has changed dramatically in the past year, however. In November 2012, Colorado and Washington passed laws to legalize pot.
And the Justice Department announced in August that it would allow those legalization laws to go into effect, as long as businesses follow certain guidelines. The operating standards came in the form of a three-and-a-half-page memo from Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of NORML, a group in favor marijuana law reform, thinks a shift in Jamaica’s drug policy is long overdue.
“Politically this is something that could have, should have happened a long time ago there,” Pierre said. “But the major impediment allowing this not to happen is us, our State Department, our CIA.”
If Jamaica decides to move forward with decriminalization, or even legalization, it will put the U.S. on the spot to honor its own domestic standards around the drug.
A request for comment to the U.S. Department of State about marijuana laws in Jamaica netted this statement from a press officer:
“It is the duty of each nation to determine how best to craft drug policies that meet the specific needs of its individual circumstances, within the framework of international law."
Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, recently traveled to Jamaica to discuss marijuana laws. Nadelmann, whose organization favors legalization, thinks officials there are more hopeful than in the past.
“Jamaicans have good reason historically to fear how the U.S. government might respond to Jamaica decriminalizing or legalizing ganja,” he said. “But those considerations have to have shifted in the aftermath of Washington, Colorado and the Justice Department’s Cole memorandum.”
Impact on tourism
Marijuana is already ubiquitous in tourist towns, and would likely gain even wider acceptance if the criminal penalties are dissolved.
Pot is certainly part of the draw. The U.S. Department of State acknowledges that “illegal drug use is prevalent in some tourist areas” but cautions that those drugs are still illegal under Jamaican law.
But if decriminalization is implemented, that will take away the fear of ending up in a Jamaican jail cell for a spliff.
The societal impact
For Jamaicans, the policy change will be much more meaningful.
Ganja is believed to have first arrived in Jamaica in the 19th century, and has since been adopted for medicinal, recreational and spiritual purposes.
In the modern era, however, the legal penalties around pot have saddled Jamaicans with criminal records that can make them unemployable.
"There is no doubt that ganja can have harmful effects on an individual,” lawmaker Daryl Vaz, a former information minister, told the Associated Press in September. “But this does not warrant criminalization of thousands of Jamaicans for their personal choice and use, some for reasons deep-rooted in culture.”
Early to market
While Jamaicans may have access to medicinal pot in the near future, the launch of the country’s first medical marijuana business is a speculative move. The founder says the company won’t deal with products containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) -- a psychoactive chemical compound in pot -- until the government gives its approval.
Jamaican marijuana law activist Delano Seiveright thinks its a smart business decision.
“He’s going to form the company pretty much now, and as soon as it’s decriminalized,” Seiveright said, “he’ll be first in line to move forward with what he needs to do.”