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Waiting to Exhale:

It’s time to reform our ganja laws 

Ganja farmer Junior Gordon from Westmoreland, Jamaica (at left) is reputed to grow some very high-grade marijuana, with THC content in excess of 23 per cent. That compares to the 9-13 THC content normally found in Jamaican ganja. Gordon is a premier ganja grower in Jamaica. Here he talks with musician and herbalist Christopher “Birdheye” Gordon (at right) during a tour of Tender Buds Farm. In 2015, Jamaica decriminalised small amounts of ganja for personal use, legalised medical ganja, and allowed folks to grow up to five ganja plants in their households. Rastafari adults can use it for sacramental purposes. Many farmers and others are looking forward to increased ganja tourism. PHOTO BY MARTEI KORLEY via LargeUp blog site (

We can learn a lot about enlightened cannabis policies from Europe, says
Rose-Marie Belle-Antoine at the recent EU Law conference at UWI, St Augustine.

BY SHEREEN ANN ALI. Published in the October 2018 issue of UWI Today.

“Law reform for marijuana can no longer be ignored,” says Prof Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, who believes our current prohibitionist approach is “ineffective, incongruous, obsolete and deeply unjust.” Speaking at the recent EU-CARICOM Law Conference held at the University Inn on September 26-27, she said the European Union has “led the way in rethinking the issue of marijuana, and more broadly, drug control. Europe has provided the intellectual leadership and the rest of the world is now following.”

In an interesting presentation (see her full speech at UWI Today online), Prof Antoine said scientific research, empirical data and Caribbean public opinion all now support a serious overhaul of our outdated laws on cannabis. Our current laws criminalise both the plant and its users, and even patients taking the drug for medical reasons such as pain relief. Current laws also excessively and often unfairly punish small-level, lower income users who have received longer jail sentences than those meted out to people committing more serious crimes.

Prof Antoine recently completed a two-year exercise as part of a team reviewing Caribbean Community policies on cannabis.  She was Chair of the CARICOM Commission on Marijuana, which submitted its report to CARICOM heads in July 2018. The full findings of the downloadable report are online (see Caricom website, Report of the Caricom Regional Commission on Marijuana).

Rather than treating cannabis use as a criminal offence, it should be dealt with as a public health issue and/or a human rights issue, said Prof Antoine. Just as alcohol and tobacco are not deemed “dangerous drugs” but are controlled substances which are legal and regulated, so, too should cannabis be decriminalised and regulated, she advocated.

Prof Antoine said medical evidence establishes that cannabis is less harmful, or no more harmful than some other substances that are currently not prohibited or criminalised under law, such as alcohol; several studies have established this.

That’s not to say that cannabis has no harmful effects. Prof Antoine said evidence shows it has had negative effects on adolescent brains, affecting memory, learning and attention, and may put some youth at risk for early onset of psychosis. Therefore cannabis is not recommended for young people whose brains are still developing.

But for adults who use cannabis, the CARICOM Commission on Marijuana found that on balance, the proven medical benefits of cannabis in several areas outweigh the risks.

Marijuana has been used for medicinal purposes for more than 3,000 years. Medical marijuana is used for treatment of glaucoma and epilepsy. There are at least two active chemicals in marijuana that can have medicinal applications. Those are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC has pain-relieving properties and is largely responsible for the high. People take cannabidiol by mouth for anxiety, bipolar disorder, a muscle disorder called dystonia, seizures, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and schizophrenia. THC extracts are used to treat nausea from cancer medicines, to increase appetites in AIDS patients, and for other uses.

For most of our Caribbean history, marijuana was a free substance, grown naturally and easily throughout the region, and part of many people’s ethnic cultural heritage, noted Prof Antoine. Current draconian ganja laws were responses to international treaties which deemed cannabis a “dangerous drug” without any value, medicinal or otherwise, she said. “Harsh, criminal penalties were then imposed on cannabis in all its forms within a context of strict liability, meaning no discretion or mitigation is allowed. This was despite the lack of scientific or medical data to support this classification,” said Prof Antoine.

She explained: “This is significant given that the harshness of the law was premised on this supposed egregious harm. There is credible evidence that its acquisition of an illegal status was also due to attempts to stifle competition with alcohol, which had just emerged out of prohibition itself. This classification, first in international treaties, was spearheaded by the US and was automatically followed domestically. Documents declassified and released to the public in 2002 illustrate that the US Shafer Commission, established by Nixon to cement marijuana laws, came to the opposite conclusion. Its 1972 Report to the US Congress challenged this classification, finding that marijuana presented little harm and could ‘not justify the intrusion by the criminal law into private behaviour’.”

Prof Antoine said the CARICOM Marijuana Commission found that “the existing prohibitionist regime induces more harm than any possible adverse consequences of cannabis/marijuana itself.”

She noted we can learn some lessons not only from the European Union but also more close to home, from Jamaica, which decriminalised ganja three years ago in 2015. She said “there has not been any discernible increase in use, or in psychosis cases. Further, criminal arrests have decreased, and Jamaica has begun to reap benefits from the cannabis industry.”


Cannabis is a psychoactive drug from the Cannabis plant used for medical, recreational or spiritual purposes. The main psychoactive part of cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of 483 known compounds in the plant. Cannabis can be used by smoking, vaporizing, within food, or as an extract.


Countries that have legalised the medical use of cannabis include Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom. About 30 states in the US have legalised medical marijuana.

Canada (effective 17 October 2018) and Uruguay are the only countries that have fully legalised the consumption and sale of recreational cannabis nationwide. In the United States, nine states and the District of Columbia have legalised sales and consumption although it remains federally illegal.

Conference recommendations from
Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine:
"Dismantle cannabis prohibition. Replace it with a regulated framework akin to that for alcohol and tobacco, which are harmful substances that are not criminalised."

At right, Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine at the recent EU-CARICOM Law Conference held September 26-27, 2018 at the University Inn ad Conference Centre, St Augustine, Trinidad. Seen to her left is Ambassador of the European Union to T&T, Arend Biesebroek. Photo: Aneel Karim

  • CARICOM Member States should act together to formulate a formal, regional position with a clear, informed roadmap, to give credibility to policy reform initiatives. Consider partnering with powerful allies like those in Europe, Canada, Uruguay and other Latin American states, to press for amendments to the Conventions.

  • In the interim, Member States should declare that the treaties contravene human rights principles in CARICOM states to ground a justification for avoiding treaty obligations.

  • Dismantle cannabis prohibition. Replace it with a regulated framework akin to that for alcohol and tobacco, which are harmful substances that are not criminalised.

  • Classify cannabis as a “controlled substance”, and not a “dangerous drug” with “no value”.

  • Legalise marijuana use for medical purposes.

  • Remove all criminal penalties from marijuana laws. In this way, cannabis sales and profits will no longer be treated as proceeds of crime under anti-money laundering and proceeds of crime legislation.

  • Protect children and young people from cannabis by prohibiting its use for certain age limits, except for medical reasons.

  • Pass drug-driving laws.

  • Decriminalise possession of small amounts of ganja for use in private households and for personal use. This means allowing limited home-growing for a small number of plants.

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