Thursday 22 August, 2019

MEDS: Ganja in Jamaica - the good, the bad, the ugly

With LeVaughn Flynn

Like most persons who have had a long-standing relationship with cannabis, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to help normalise it. That sense of purpose is fueled by the injustices cannabis has endured.

And to think, all we’re talking about is a plant.

The cannabis prohibition for most of the past century has left us 100 years behind in understanding the amazing potential of this herb.

Imagine that in 1974, Jamaica was the first country in the world to develop a cannabis-derived drug in Canasol, which is used to treat glaucoma. As underfunded and under-resourced as Professor Manley West and Dr Albert Lockhart were, they achieved a great scientific breakthrough. Forty years on, Dr Henry Lowe is at the forefront of local cannabis research. In 2017, the scientist achieved orphan drug status approval from the USA’s Food and Drug Administration for a leukemia treatment.

While research and development have been restricted globally, especially in Jamaica, we possess something no other country does – a cultural identity with ganja. Through music and Rastafari, Jamaica has become synonymous with weed. Peter Tosh’s seminal 1975 track 'Legalise It' remains an anthem for ganja advocates.

The 'Legalize It' album cover featuring reggae singer Peter Tosh in a ganja field.

The quality of Jamaican cannabis is also unquestionable as the island has the ideal climatic conditions for cultivation.

The country’s relationship with cannabis began in the mid 1800s when Indian labourers brought the seeds here. The Indians taught us how to smoke it for the psychoactive effects and how to apply it as medicine.  A common practice was soaking ganja with other herbs in rum or oil which can then be applied to a variety of ailments. These concoctions, known as tinctures, have been a decades-old tradition, especially of rural homes.  

Cannabis tinctures were also widely available prior to being banned with the 1913 Ganja Law.

The ugly truth is cannabis prohibition was instigated by racism and classism. Research suggests that, similar to other countries, Jamaica’s decision to ban cannabis was based out of fear and a way to marginalize the working class, who were the main users.  

That law has since had a ripple effect of social injustices that has permanently ruined lives. Pinnacle, a Rastafari settlement established in 1940 in Sligoville, St Catherine, was raided numerous times by law enforcement until its eventual destruction in 1958. Ganja was a major cash crop planted at Pinnacle that provided economic support for the community. Leonard Howell, the founder of Pinnacle and Rastafari, was jailed and sent to the mental asylum for his anti-government rhetoric.  

Mario Deane

In 2014, 31-year-old Mario Deane was arrested in Montego Bay for possession of a ganja spliff, which is less than one gram. Three days later he was reportedly beaten to death by inmates, highlighting the risks of housing petty offenders with criminals in the penal system.

Countless other young men have had their lives interrupted due to a criminal record for possession of minute quantities of cannabis for personal use. While the Jamaican Government established an expungement process in 2015, the damage of what was an inhumane law in the first place, had already been done.

Things, however, are beginning to change.

Since Jamaica decriminalized cannabis in 2015, the narrative has shifted to how we can monetise the industry to our advantage while providing holistic healing.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in the local industry which has created its own economic eco system that has provided employment along with revenue for associated industries such as technology, security and farming.

Importantly, more persons are beginning to appreciate the personal benefits cannabis can provide and public perception of the plant is slowly shifting from drug to medicine.

MEDS is a platform with the objective of sharing knowledge and stimulating new ideas and concepts around cannabis. Take the journey with us and perhaps, at the end, you would have developed a more intimate appreciation for this miracle plant.

LeVaughn Flynn is Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Itopia Life Ltd, a medical cannabis company. He can be reached at levaughn@itopialife.com. The opinions expressed in this column represent the views of the writer and not necessarily that of Loop News.

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