Wednesday 23 October, 2019

Jamaica’s move to decriminalise ganja and the challenges since

Jamaica amended its Dangerous Drug Act (DDA) in 2015 in a landmark development that saw the decriminalisation of up to two ounces of ganja for personal, therapeutic, religious and medicinal purposes without fear of prosecution.

While the legislation, which many argue came more than 40 years late, was welcomed in many quarters, it has since led to many challenges, in particular a more than 50 per cent increase in the use of the drugs by young people in just the first year following decriminalisation.

There are also concerns that it has led to an increase in smoking in public places despite a no-smoking ban in effect and the fact that the person found in breach, can be ticketed and fined $500 for doing so.

The fact is that ganja remains an illegal Class A drug in Jamaica and remains a prosecutable offence where the growing, possession, distribution etc, of amounts exceeding two ounces, is not permitted by the law or unless allowed by the Cannabis Licensing Authority. Rastafarians may also seek and receive permission to have smoking allowed at an event where members of the public are invited as long as they apply to the requisite authority and the rules of the law are applied.

However, despite being well intentioned, by June, 2016, less than three months after he became the Minister of Health, and 14 months after decriminalisation, Dr Christopher Tufton was pointing to an alarming 54 per cent increase in the number of students being treated for ganja  use. At the time, he recommended an in-depth review of the impact that amendments to the DDA were having on the country.

Tufton... had recommended an in-depth review of the impact of the amendments.

Tufton, who was speaking in the sectoral debate, hinted at a sustained prevention and control programme to combat the problem.

At the time, the health minister told the House of Representatives that “ninety per cent of the adolescents seen in the National Council on Drug Abuse’s (NCDA’s) drug treatment programme were referred due to problems associated with marijuana use."

He also revealed that treatment reports reflected a 54 per cent increase in students enrolled in a ganja (use) prevention programme called ‘STEP-UP’ since the decriminalisation took place.

Additionally, an islandwide surveillance of drug treatment centres revealed that 50 per cent of the clients were in treatment for ganja  use.

By July, 2017 Tufton told the parliament that the findings of a Drug Prevalence Study conducted by the NCDA in 2016 among 4,263 individuals in the general population, found that 28 per cent of the population (12-65 years) had used cannabis at some point in their lifetime and 18 per cent had used it in the past year with the average age of first use being 16-years-old.

While Jamaica is pushing ahead with the development of its medicinal cannabis industry, the Health and Wellness Minister has repeatedly stated that the legislation needs to be reviewed.



According o the Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) the love of the ganja plant is largely centred on the fact that it contains the mind-altering chemical delta-9-tetrahydocannabinol (THC). The MAJ said the THC can be obtained from the plant in two main ways:

1. Inhalation: (a) Smoking – rolled cigarettes (joints) or using pipes or bongs.  (b) Vapours – either from burning the leaves or using liquid extracts.

2. Ingestion – eaten in cookies, brownies or candies or used in teas.

Inhaled THC gets into the blood stream (and hence the brain) very quickly to exert its effects. When ingested, it takes as much as 30 minutes to an hour and so acts more slowly.


The documented short-term effects of THC include:

- Altered senses such as seeing brighter colours

- Altered sense of time

- Changes in mood

- Impaired movement and coordination

- Difficulty thinking and solving problems

- Impaired memory


The documented long-term effects of marijuana include:

- Impaired school performance and ability to learn and perform complex tasks. This can result in higher school dropout rates.

- Addiction

- Increased risk of domestic violence

- Antisocial behaviour such as lying and stealing.

- Greater chance of unemployment

- Possible aggravation of breathing problem when smoked. These effects include coughing, increased phlegm, and a higher risk of lung infection.

- Possible higher risk of schizoaffective disorders in susceptible individuals, but evidence that it actually causes schizophrenia and psychosis is less than convincing.


Marijuana also has some potential beneficial effects including:

- Reduction in the pressures within the eyes. This property was utilized by Professor Manley West and Dr Albert Lockhart working at the University of the West Indies to create the eye drop, Canasol and Cantimol which are used to treat glaucoma.

- Appetite stimulation (used in cancer patients who have anorexia and AIDS patients with severe weight loss).

- Reduction in pain and muscle spasm (also used in cancer patients and patients with neurologic disorders such as multiple sclerosis).

- Reduction in nausea. This property was also utilised by Professor West and Dr Lockhart as they develop Canavert for the treatment of motion sickness. Marijuana may also be used for intractable nausea from other causes such as chemotherapy.

The MAJ’s stated position is that “any policy that promulgates the legalisation of even small quantities of marijuana for recreational or medicinal use must be accompanied by a major public education campaign that highlights both the positive and negative effects of marijuana.

“ There must also be training for health care workers so that we can safely prescribe the drug for proper indications and monitor the effects. It must be made clear that decriminaliaation must lead to greater regulations if we are to prevent abuse. It cannot be a free for all.”

Said the MAJ: “A major concern is that the envisaged post-decriminalisation public education campaign on how and how not to use ganja (especially for young people) never really took place. The Ministry of Health has reported a 50 per cent increase in the number of children seeking assistance for ganja-related problems at public health facilities since 2015.

“The National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA) has also reported that 70 per cent of Jamaicans have easy access to ganja, and that young children have been trying it out.”

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