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Cannabis Media Coverage
December, 1996

Source: Inter Press Service
December 3, 1996

KINGSTON - Inter Press Service via Individual Inc. : Visitors to the sun-blessed island of Jamaica can eat salt fish, dance calypso, swim and snooze but better leave that "weed" alone.

Marijuana illegal? Surely you jest, is the reaction of many when they are caught and arrested.

But the fact is that the use of marijuana has always been illegal, even though the authorities have had great difficulty enforcing it. Now, a strong campaign is underway to repeal the prohibition, and make the use of that substance legal. The "Legalize 'Ganja' Campaign" as marijuana is called locally, was launched recently by nine prominent professionals and has attracted widespread support.

Early next month the group will have its first town meeting in the central town of May Pen, the country's third largest town after Kingston and Montego Bay. A series of town hall style meetings around the island will follow. "In Jamaica, we are making criminals out of young men simply as a result of the possession and use of ganja," says Paul Chang, a businessman and one of the campaign's pioneers. "The law is unjust. A lot of damage is done by the law and its abuse, and the problem would be alleviated by the legalization of ganja."

Many Jamaicans have had a close association with the illegal substance for many years. Reportedly introduced to the island by Indian indentured laborers in the 19th century, the smoking of marijuana became a religious ritual for Rastafarians, who adhere to strong African beliefs, and have radical anti-Western interpretation of the Bible.

The Rastafarian movement emerged in the 1930s, and shortly afterwards marijuana was declared illegal in the United States, with the rest of the world following suit. The Rastafarians found themselves coming into conflict with the police over the use of the drug, as soon as it became a symbol of anti-establishment rebellion. In the 1960s and 1970s, marijuana was illegally exported from Jamaica to the United States, earning a healthy living for traffickers, before they turned to cocaine and other hard drugs.

Marijuana grown in Jamaica was once regarded as being of the best quality in the world, but pride of place appears to have been lost to a recent Colombian strain. "The Rastafari movement is growing stronger every day. Babylon cannot maintain their oppressive ban against ganja, in the face of the overwhelming forces of good," says Ras Silver, one of the leaders of the movement.

For Rastafarians, the term "Babylon" covers the Western world, the church and government as agents of imperialism. Capitalism is seen as the system of Babylon. Today among the younger members of the movement the term has become synonymous with the police force. "It is a breach of their religious liberties to prevent Rastafarians from smoking ganja," says Dr. Barry Chevannes, a sociologist at the regional University of the West Indies (UWI), who has studied the movement. "Ganja use is an inhere part of their rituals."

But those who continue to advocate that the drug should remain illegal say they are concerned about its addictive properties. "Our last comprehensive study on ganja use was in 1991, when we conducted a survey of Jamaican school children 11 years old and upwards. We found that 20 percent of those who had smoked ganja continued to use the drug," says Michael Tucker, Executive Director of the National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA).

Tucker says four percent of those who started out experimenting with marijuana went on to cocaine, while another three percent graduated to crack. As a result, marijuana is labelled a "gateway" drug, leading on to harder substances. "Basically, those children who smoke ganja do it primarily to get a high. Those using ganja for religious reasons is a minority. Because they do it for a high, there are some who move on to the harder drugs in pursuit of an even greater high," says Tucker.

But the perception that marijuana is a gateway drug is being disputed by a number of medical authorities. The 20th annual report of the California Research Advisory Panel in 1990 recommended that personal use and cultivation of the drug be legalized, because "an objective consideration of marijuana shows that it is responsible for less damage to society and the individual than are alcohol and cigarettes."

Several studies done at UWI also support this report, and similarly find that marijuana is less harmful than was previously thought. Among some of the myths which were put to rest were that the use of marijuana causes birth defects, brain damage, reduced testosterone, or increased drug abuse problems. A study carried out in 1980 on heavy users in Jamaica and Costa Rica found no abnormalities in brain physiology. In addition, a 1988 study on, "Newborn Outcomes with Maternal Marijuana Use in Jamaican Women", revealed that women who smoked marijuana throughout their pregnancy found that their babies actually registered higher on developmental scores by the time they were a month old.

"We have a number of medical experts on board, examining the existing data. We have psychiatrists looking at the information, and we will make a statement on the Campaign at the beginning of next month. The Minister of Health will address the nation on the subject," says Tucker. But Chang says he understands the reason for the move declaring the drug illegal in the early years. "The reasons were economic. In the 1930s, industrial hemp (made from the marijuana plant) was on the rise, and it was of better quality than cotton, and appeared set to replace that fabric. Hemp oil was widely used, and even the timber industry was threatened.

"All these interests came together, forged an alliance, and destroyed the hemp industry," says Chang. But there is also an economic case for legalizing marijuana, according to UWI professor Wolfgang Grassi."The cost of illegality include a higher price and lower quality those who want to consume, high law enforcement expenditures, and increased disrespect for the law. Police and courts are distracted from their proper tasks of fighting true socially menacing crime," he says.

In addition, as long as marijuana is illegal, it benefits the suppliers of the drug. "Drug barons reap gigantic economic rents for the distorted price structure. Whenever the police unceremoniously burn a stack of ganja, it forces up the market price and provides extra profits for the residual suppliers," says Grassi.

However, many of the advocates of marijuana use neglect to mention that while the drug might not be as harmful as alcohol and tobacco, it still has dangerous side-effects. The Kaiser Permanent Centre in the U.S. did a study that showed that daily ganja smokers had a 19 percent higher rate of respiratory complaints than non-smokers, as marijuana smoke contains the same toxic gases and carcinogenic tar as tobacco.

The Kaiser study also found that daily marijuana users had a 30 percent higher risk of injuries than those who did not smoke. However, those figures were not as high as the comparable risks for heavy drinkers or tobacco addicts. "Both nicotine and ganja are dangerous, and can lead to health problems. It cannot be healthy to draw smoke into your lungs," says Tucker.

The abuse of marijuana can lead to short-term memory, and can affect a person's focus on time. In addition, it could also slow down your reaction time, and make concentration difficult, he says. "It affects individuals differently. It can impair sporting performances, cause fear and panic in some people, and may even lead to mental illness in some cases," says Tucker.

[12-02-96 at 15:38 EST, Copyright 1996, Inter Press Service]