Overview of drug policy, drug law and legislative trends in Jamaica
As an island that is viewed as the mecca of cannabis culture, many are surprised to learn that Jamaica is only now in the midst of reforming its cannabis laws. The cultivation, selling, and consumption of cannabis as all other drugs have been illegal since 1913. However, following a unanimous symbolic vote in the Jamaican House of Representatives last October, the Jamaican government announced in June 2014 that it would decriminalise marijuana possession for personal consumption and religious/medical use by the end of the year. In January 2015, Justice minister Mark Golding introduced a Bill that in addittion to decriminalizing the possession of ganja up to two ounces, it would establish a cannabis licensing authority to regulate cultivation, sale and distribution for medical, scientific and therapeutic purposes. The Bill passed both in Senate and House of Representatives on February 2015.
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Ganja in Jamaica
Jamaican law currently prohibits the cultivation, possession, use, and exchange of all recreational drugs. This law is randomly-enforced in regards to possession for personal use, yet it still creates a large burden for Jamaica’s law enforcement agencies, prisons, and courts. The general public recognises that the criminal status of cannabis comes at a high cost for the livelihood of its citizens, with young Jamaican males being particularly at risk for receiving disproportionate sentences and consequential permanent criminal records.
As a result, marijuana reform has been gaining both public and political support in Jamaica, especially within the last 10 years. In 2013, the House of Representatives unanimously voted in favour of a motion to decriminalise marijuana possession for personal use. Fenton Ferguson, Jamaica’s Minister of Health announced in November 2013 that he was “fully on board” for legalising marijuana use for medicinal purposes. Damion Crawford, Jamaica’s Minister of State for Tourism and Entertainment, highlighted the nation’s harsh and disproportionate penalties, claiming that “for personal use, the punishment of a criminal record is too much.”
Recent developments in the various Latin American nations regarding the cannabis debate, in addition to actual reforms that have occurred in Uruguay, Washington, and Colorado, have paved the way for Jamaican lawmakers who have been seeking drug policy reform for several decades. Delano Seiveright, director of Ganja Law Reform Coalition, said: “The co-operation on this issue far outweighs what I've seen before…Both sides are in agreement with the need to move forward.”
Finally, in June 2014, the Jamaican government approved of a series of significant reforms to the country’s marijuana laws. The Justice Minister, Mark Golding, said the cabinet supports a proposal that allows possession of up to two ounces of marijuana. Mr Golding also said marijuana would be decriminalised for religious, medicinal and scientific purposes. This move has been widely endorsed “by Rastafarians, business leaders and even clerics of Jamaica's conservative churches.” The reform bill was introduced in the Senate in January 2015 where it was passed on February 6, 2015. The bill was approved by the House of Representatives on February 24, 2015. (See: Dangerous Drugs Amendment Act 2015 Fact Sheet)
Cocaine in Jamaica
While ganja is the most widely used drug in Jamaica, the island also serves as an important role in the trafficking of cocaine from Colombia to the USA and Britain. By the mid to late 1980s, Jamaica’s transhipment and drug production developments earned it the international reputation of “a major marijuana producing state and a transit state for Columbian cocaine.”
This continues to be a major issue today; in 2005, 99% of surveyed Jamaican border control agents stated that the nation’s drug trafficking remains a serious problem requiring immediate attention. In her 2011 book “Drugged Out: Globalisation and Jamaica's Resilience to Drug Trafficking,” Suzette Haughton states that cocaine transhipment has attracted professional criminal groups in Jamaica due to the drug’s “profit generation capability and high potency.” In contrast, she reports that marijuana exportation takes place on a small scale and the involvement of criminal organisations is minimal.
Haughton states that: “the Jamaican state has demonstrated that it holds the legitimate authority to use force and respond appropriately in suppressing disorder and chaos… Hence, it will exercise its authority in the national interest to reduce security threats posed by a network of national and international drug traffickers.” It should be noted that marijuana and cocaine seizures from 1998 – 2013 have increased considerably due to collaborative efforts between Jamaica and the USA.
The possession, cultivation, and selling of all illicit substances (including cannabis) have been prohibited in Jamaica since 1913. However, cannabis or ganja use is common in the country, with a 2001 study showing that nearly half of all Jamaicans have tried the substance. It is estimated that this figure has increased over the past 13 years.
Jamaica is a signatory to number of international drug control instruments[P1] , the most notable of which are the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drug and the 1972 Protocol Amending the Single Convention, the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.
Article 4(c) of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs states that “the use and possession of cannabis…is limited to medical and scientific purposes.”
Article 28(3) states that “the Parties shall adopt such measures as may be necessary to prevent the misuse of, and illicit traffic in, the leaves of the cannabis plant.”
Article 36 mandates that the “cultivation, production, manufacture, extraction, preparation, possession, offering, offering for sale, distribution, purchase, sale, delivery on any terms whatsoever, brokerage, dispatch, dispatch in transit, transport, importation and exportation of drugs…shall be punishable offence.”
The 1988 Convention does not explicitly criminalise drug consumption per sé, but it was designed to force parties to bring the cultivation, purchase and possession of illicit substances under the purview of the criminal justice system.[P2]
Jamaica’s commitment to the international drugs conventions has led to the design of the following marijuana-related national Acts:
The Dangerous Drugs Act prohibits the importing, exporting, cultivating, gathering, producing, selling or otherwise dealing cannabis. Offenders are sentenced to monetary fines or imprisonment.
The Drug Court Act “adopts a health-related, rather than a punitive approach to drug use.” While Drug Courts traditionally retain a punitive approach, this Act aimed to support the establishment of Drug Courts that facilitate the treatment and rehabilitation of drug offenders in Jamaica. Critics say Drug Courts maintain punishment, just using a different discourse.
Historical proposals for reform
In 1977, the Jamaican government set up a Joint Select Committee to “consider the criminality, legislation, uses and abuses and possible medicinal properties of ganja and to make appropriate recommendations.” While the Committee rejected the idea of legalising marijuana, arguing it would contradict Jamaica’s obligations under the 1961 U.N. Single Convention, it did acknowledge that there was “a substantial case for decriminalising the personal use of ganja.”
It recommended decriminalising ganja for:
These recommendations were subsequently shelved due to the fear of potential blowback from international forces, in particular the United States.
In 2001, the government-appointed National Commission of Ganja concluded that it was in Jamaica’s national interest to reform its marijuana laws. The Commission said that cannabis was “culturally entrenched” in Jamaican society, and recommended legalising the private use and possession of small amounts by adults. It argued that penalising individuals for possessing or cultivating small quantities was “unjust” and thereby discredited Jamaica’s legal system.
While this report received approval from a government committee, its recommendations did not come to fruition due to the fear of condemnation by the United States.
Over the past few decades, the U.S. has invested millions in coca and cannabis eradication efforts in Latin America, while also using trade agreements and the provision of U.S. aid to incentivise countries to adhere to its drug control goals.
However, with two North American states regulating their cannabis markets and the U.S. Justice Department announcing in 2013 that it would not oppose statewide drug policy reforms, Jamaican lawmakers are less worried about the prospect of international resistance. Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, remarked: “Now that the Obama administration has given Colorado and Washington a qualified green light to proceed with legally regulating and taxing marijuana, there is no way that U.S. diplomatic representatives can credibly tell Jamaica, or anyone else, that they can't do the same.”
2014: The Year of Jamaican Marijuana Reform
On October 8 2013, the House of Representatives cast a symbolic vote upon the issue of decriminalising marijuana. The motion, which was moved by MP Raymond Pryce, passed “without a voice of dissent.” While this did not have any actual legislative impact, it signified that the House of Representatives - Jamaica’s most powerful legislative body - was overwhelmingly in favour of potential reform.
December 2013 saw the launch of the nation’s first medical marijuana company, which signals Jamaica’s first wide-scale effort to find a legitimate source of revenue from the island’s plentiful supply of cannabis crops. Having suffered from a fledging formal economy since the turn of the century, this potential reform will have a significant impact upon tourism to Jamaica, an industry that accounts for 10% of national GDP.[P1]
In May 2014, Jamaica’s Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Research Taskforce said that the Portia Simpson Miller administration should move within a 4-month period to decriminalise marijuana. The Taskforce issued a 12-point plan that it recommended that the government should follow, including allowing personal, private use of marijuana, expunging criminal records for individuals who were previously charged for its use, and recognising the rights of groups that smoke ganja for religious and spiritual purposes. They also recommended maintaining the national ban on smoking in public areas, while also implementing educational programs to “reduce juvenile use and demand for ganja.”
At a Jamaica Cannabis Conference in May 2014, Phillip Paulwell, Jamaican Minister of Science and Technology, assured that marijuana will be decriminalised by the end of the year. The Cannabis Conference concluded with the hope that 2014 would see the ganja market become a legal industry “which not only acts as a cash crop and provides much needed agricultural jobs, but also as the building blocks for the development of wide ranging medical treatments.”
Most significantly, the government announced in June 2014 that possession of up to two ounces of marijuana would be decriminalised by September 2014. The Justice Minister, Mark Golding, stressed that: “I wish to stress that the proposed changes to the law are not intended to promote or give a stamp of approval to the use of ganja for recreational purposes.” He added that the government would propose a Parliamentary bill that will expunge the criminal records of people convicted for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
This transition will be overseen by a newly-developed Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Research Taskforce. Phillip Paulwell, Leader of Government Business in the House of Representatives, has “reiterated the multiple economic, social and cultural benefits that Jamaica stands to gain if the laws are adjusted sooner rather than later.”
Highlights of the proposed reforms approved by the Jamaican Cabinet in June 2014 include:
At the end of June 2014, Senator Mark Golding proposed a bill to automatically expunge convictions for individuals charged with previous ganja-related offences. The bill, which was tabled on the 27th of June to the Jamaican Senate, was titled “An Act to Amend the Criminal Records.” The bill has long been anticipated, as both government and opposition members of Parliament have been urging successive governments to introduce the automatic expungement for minor offences.
In January 2015, Justice minister Mark Golding introduced the Bill to amendent the Dangerous Drugs Act – announced in June 2014 – in the Senate. In addittion to decriminalizing the possession of ganja up to two ounces, the Bill would establish a cannabis licensing authority to regulate cultivation, sale and distribution for medical, scientific and therapeutic purposes. The Bill intends to pave the way for a legal medical marijuana industry in Jamaica. The reform bill was introduced in the Senate in January 2015 where it was passed on February 6, 2015. The bill was approved by the House of Representatives on February 24, 2015.
The most important new provisions in the law are:
With the exception of the recent marijuana reforms, all forms of activity relating to the possession, use, cultivating, selling, and trafficking of illicit substances are punishable by fines and imprisonment in Jamaica
Authorities also heavily control the manufacture, sale, transport, and possession of ecstasy and methamphetamine, along with any precursor chemicals used to produce them. While cargo and travel-related seizures of hashish, hash oil, cocaine, crack cocaine, and ecstasy tablets have decreased since 2009, seizures of marijuana have actually increased.
While most small-scale farmers and individual users of marijuana are neither charged nor caught in the act, those who are can be subjected to costly consequences under current laws. A 2012 study by the Jamaican Constabulary Force found that around 11.5% of Jamaican inmates were incarcerated for drugs-relatedoffences. The primary targets of these sentences are young Jamaican males for cannabis-related offences; it was reported around 300 young men per week are charged for this. Consequently, marijuana criminalisation has “scarlet-lettered thousands of mainly poor young men with a police record that ruins their prospects of employment and migration, while exposing them to contagion with hardened offenders.”
However, in recent years, the efforts of law enforcement agencies have been gradually shifting away from repressing drug use. The Jamaica Observer states that “over the last three years, Jamaica's seizures of illicit substances have generally decreased along with cannabis eradication efforts. This trend is largely the result of financial constraints on the Jamaica Constabulary Force and the Jamaica Defence Force, in addition to a shift in focus toward responding to natural disasters, combating gang activity, and addressing Jamaica's high murder rate.”
The Jamaica Observer also notes that while the murder rate has decreased slightly since 2009, murders began to rise again in 2013, a trend that appears set to continue. The nation’s per capita murder rate remains one of the highest in the world at 52 per 10,000. The Jamaica Constabulary Force estimated that a significant portion of these murders were related to criminal gangs, most of which operate in the illicit drugs market.
In June 2014, Jamaican authorities reported a 40% increase in murders in West Kingston. This is likely due to the recent arrest of Christopher "Dudus" Coke, a notorious Jamaican drug lord and gang leader. Anthropologist and university lecturer Dr. Herbert Gayle posited that this is due to a repositioning in Jamaica’s criminal world, as well as “a lack of state social interventions, which has led communities to remain dependent on these criminal leaders.” Criminal gangs are now fighting over extortion profits as well as profits from Jamaica’s cocaine industry.
In 2010, the Jamaican government was lambasted by the U.S. government in the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR). It was claimed that the low number of drug-related arrests in Jamaica indicated a passive federal attitude towards fighting the use and trafficking of drugs. Like most other Latin American and Caribbean countries, the federal government and law enforcement agencies of Jamaica are subject to immense international pressure to achieve high arrest rates as evidence of effective drug control initiatives. Jamaica’s Minister of National Security, Senator Dwight Nelson, replied that the U.S.’s critique discredited the nation’s extensive drug control strategies. He said that: “the reduction in ganja seizures may be attributed to success in previous years at combating production.”
The Law 15 of 1913 (known as the Ganja Law) prohibited the "cultivation and importation" of ganja, punishable by a fine of £100 or up to 12 months imprisonment. It was preceded by The 1912 Hague International Opium Convention. After concerns about ganja smoking in Jamaica were heavily discussed at the Convention, the Council of Evangelical Churches drafted Law 15 and sent it to the Legislative Council for ratification in 1912.
The 1924 United Nations Opium Conference in Geneva led to an amendment to Law 15. This amendment, once again influenced by the Evangelical Church, called for a drastic increase of fines and imprisonment terms for the first-time convictions of ganja users. It was renamed Dangerous Drug Law of 1924.
The developments of Law 15 of 1913 and the Opium Conference of 1924 were formalised as The Dangerous Drugs Act of 1948. The Dangerous Drug Act outlaws the following:
Infringing upon this Act can be punishable by:
Possessing over the following quantities of each substance would be deemed not for personal use, but for the purpose of sale:
Regarding drug-related searches, seizures, and inspection, the Act deems that:
Political changes and scientific developments that occurred over the following decades culminated in a series of amendments to the Ganja Law, the most significant of which was implemented in the 1970s. An Amendment was passed that removed the list of criminal activities associated with the ganja law, along with their mandatory imprisonment terms.
The 2014 reform will decriminalise private use, but possession of marijuana will remain a ticket-able offence. Justice Minister, Mark Golding, stated in June that “smoking will only be addressed as an offence if you violate the rules around smoking in public. But possession will remain something that is not lawful and for which you may be given a ticket.”
The National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA)’s 2001 Survey of Drug Abuse in Jamaica survey found that while 60% of the Jamaican population use marijuana, tobacco, and alcohol, only 0.5% regularly use substances such as cocaine, ‘crack’ cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin. The survey also found significant gender disparities regarding drug use, being 20.5% amongst males and 3.8% for females.
According to the Jamaica Constabulary Force, cannabis is used by 9% of the population, making it the most popular drug among Jamaicans. Meanwhile, cocaine use has stabilised at less than 0.1% of the population over the last 10 years. However, there is evidence that new drugs, such as heroin and ecstasy, have entered the Jamaican domestic market in small amounts. Arrests for cocaine occur at 10% of the rate for marijuana, with around 500 arrests being made in the year 2000 for cocaine-related crimes.
To confront illicit drug use, Jamaica has applied a range demand reduction programmes. The National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA) was established in 1982 to reduce the use and abuse of both legal and illegal drugs. NCDA field officers also provide support to the primary care system through the assessment of substance abusers in the mental health system.
The National Health Fund (NHF) has established and funded 18 community medical clinics across the island that provide primary treatment services with referrals to hospitals, clinics, physicians, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Additionally, the clinics provide drug-related counselling and trauma services.
The government also operates one detoxification center in Kingston, and the Organisation of American States (OAS) Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) university-level certificate programme in drug addiction and drug prevention remains active. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) works directly with the government of Jamaica on demand reduction. However, it must be noted that that efficacy of these programs is severely limited by a lack of resources and funding.
In March 2014, the Organization of American States (OAS) conducted a Drug Treatment Court Exchange and On-Site Study Programme for Jamaica, along with three other Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries. The workshop was organised under the umbrella of the Drug Treatment Courts Program in the Americas, an initiative coordinated by the OAS Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD). Jamaica already has three Drug Treatment Courts in operation, the functioning of which have not been critically assessed just yet. .
On the 7th of July 2014, Senator Mark Golding announced collaborative plans between the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Health to expand Jamaica’s Drug Court system. Although the initiative was introduced in 2001, it has not been expanded beyond Kingston and Montego Bay since.
Jamaican marijuana is not only grown for local use; the U.S. State Department also claims that Jamaica serves as the largest Caribbean supplier to both the United States and other neighbouring islands. Jamaican Foreign Minister, A.J. Nicholson, noted that as a nation with a historical reputation as a major cannabis exporter, Jamaica must remain cognisant of its commitments and responsibilities to the international community.
The United States has historically played an extremely influential role in shaping Jamaican drug policy, partly because the island is a central transit point for substances being trafficked from Central and South America to North America. Jamaica and the United States have a bilateral law enforcement agreement to curb the flow of illicit drugs through maritime means.
Jamaica and the United States
The 2014 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report states that: “The United States supports a wide range of efforts designed to address crime and violence affecting Jamaican citizens, primarily through the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI). CBSI is a security partnership between the United States and Caribbean nations that seeks to substantially reduce illicit trafficking, advance public safety and citizen security, and promote social justice.”
The United States also supports and funds local task-forces with the purpose of eradicating Jamaica’s estimated 15,000 hectares of cannabis crops. Civilians are employed and supervised by police and military personnel to cut growing plants, seize seedlings, and burn them in the field.
Additionally, former Prime Minister Bruce Golding noted that “decriminalisation can invoke international consequences which would pose severe challenges for us,” including “significant impact in terms of our trade arrangements with the United States.” Countries which do not follow along with the United States’ prohibitionist tactics regarding to the War on Drugs face the risk of “decertification”. Decertification occurs when the U.S. decides that countries involved in the drug trade (either as producers, traffickers, or both) are not cooperating effectively with U.S. counter-narcotics programs. The consequences of decertification include the withdrawal of U.S. aid, refusal of visas, U.S. opposition to multilateral loans and possible trade sanctions.
Another notable task force that takes an aggressive stance towards cannabis production in Jamaica is Operation Kingfish, a multinational group (consisting of Jamaica, U.S., United Kingdom, and Canada) that coordinates investigations to the arrest major criminals. From its October 2004 inception through December 2006, Operation Kingfish launched 1,378 operations resulting in the seizure of 56 vehicles, 57 boats, one aircraft, 206 firearms, and two containers conveying drugs. Kingfish was also responsible for the seizure of over 13 metric tons of cocaine (mostly outside of Jamaica) and over 27,390 pounds of compressed marijuana. In 2006 Operation Kingfish mounted 870 operations, compared to 607 in 2005. In 2006, through cargo scanning, the Jamaican Customs Contraband Enforcement Team seized over 3,000 pounds of marijuana, ten kg of cocaine, and approximately $500,000 at Jamaican air and seaports.
Jamaica and the United Nations
Justice Minister Mark Golding’s June 15 statement regarding the recent marijuana law reforms also highlighted Jamaica’s commitments to the Conventions of the United Nations:
“The international agreements to which Jamaica is party place certain limitations on the changes that can be made to our domestic law without violating our international obligations. For example, the Single Convention as amended limits the production, manufacture, export, import, distribution of, trade in, use and possession of drugs except for medical and scientific purposes.
"Drug", as defined, includes cannabis, cannabis resin, extracts and tinctures of cannabis. The prohibitions imposed by that Convention, therefore, apply to ganja. There is a view that the strictures imposed by these international drug-related agreements need to be reviewed by state parties in light of current developments and trends.
This is an important item on the agenda of CARICOM. But until the stipulated requirements are reviewed and adjustments made, we are obliged to make such changes that are permissible within the present scheme of international obligations.
In this regard, it is important to note that the relevant conventions recognise the supremacy of the constitutions of member states -- the obligation to control, restrict and impose sanctions in respect of prohibited activities relating to drugs is expressly stated to be subject to the constitutional principles of member states.
This, we submit, provides some flexibility in the treatment of the use and possession of ganja in our local context. The rights guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and, in particular, the right to privacy and freedom of religion, are or of special significance.
Of relevance also to the proposed decriminalisation of ganja for medicinal and research purposes is the fact that medical and scientific purposes are expressly recognised exceptions under the relevant Conventions.”[P1]
Jamaica and the Caribbean Community
In 2013, Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries agreed to discuss the issue of decriminalising marijuana for medical purposes at their inter-sessional summit in March 2014. Prior to the summit, the Jamaica government was being urged by other pro-reform CARICOM bodies to enact legislation that would decriminalise marijuana as well as establish a medical marijuana industry. Jamaica and and other CARICOM leaders will further discuss the issue of decriminalisation of marijuana for medicinal purposes when they meet in Antigua in July 2014 for their annual summit.
Regional leaders have also indicated an investigative interest in the subject of cannabis decriminalisation. In March 2014, CARICOM Heads of Government mandated that a Regional Commission be set up to address issues identified in relation to marijuana use. The agenda for cannabis reform at CARICOM meetings have reportedly been spearheaded by activists in Jamaica, St Lucia and St Vincent. The results of this investigation will be reported this July.
The Ganja Future Growers and Producers Association, a pro-reform advocacy group launched in April 2014, has been calling for a regulatory model that will benefit small growers instead of large corporations, stating: “For the first three years of a regulated industry, licenses should only be given to plots of one acre or less.”
The President of the Medical Association of Jamaica said the Association does not recommend legalisation, but acknowledges that “possession of small amounts for personal use, within the confines of the home and not in public places, as long as this does not impinge on the rights of others to be at peace with themselves could be decriminalised.”
The Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights presented a case in 1998 for removing marijuana from the schedule of dangerous drugs altogether: “the Council recommends that every individual should be able to cultivate, possess, sell, smoke and use ganja, that Rastafarians should not need any special permit to use it for their religious purposes, and that the court should have the power to treat addiction as a medical problem.”
The National Council on Drug Abuses branches into a number of semi-governmental Community Development Action Committees (CODACs). All of the CODAC representatives interviewed by the 2001 National Commission of Ganja supported decriminalisation. One coordinator based in a working-class commune in Kingston said: “the community supports conditionally the decriminalisation of possession of ganja for personal use, not because it is harmless, but under the present law law-abiding persons are treated as criminals. The smoking of ganja should be a health concern and not a criminal matter…Feelings of partiality and injustice are harboured and people lose respect for the system of law.”
A number of community groups, faith-based organisations, and health institutes offer treatment and counselling services for drug users in Jamaica.
Legislative and Government Documents
Studies, surveys and other documents