Jamaica's marijuana growers split on legalisation

Image caption, Marijuana plants were introduced in Jamaica in the 19th Century

The Jamaican government has said it is planning to decriminalise possession of small amounts of marijuana by the end of this year. The BBC's Nick Davis travelled to Jamaica's interior to gauge the reaction of those currently growing the crop illegally.

In Jamaica, marijuana, or ganja, as it is more commonly known on the Caribbean island, is used in religious ceremonies by Rastafarians and as a herbal medicine by many others.

But it is not just grown for local consumption. According to the US state department, Jamaica remains the largest Caribbean supplier of marijuana to the US as well as other Caribbean islands.

Cultivation and import of the drug have been illegal since 1913, although those caught with small amounts are rarely prosecuted.

Clandestine growers

The debate surrounding its use and whether it should be decriminalised, or even legalised, has been further fuelled by the drug's legalisation in Uruguay and the US states of Colorado and Washington.

But those who would be most affected by any change in the law, the marijuana growers, are divided on the issue.

At an idyllic spot overlooking a mountain and a river in the island's lush green interior, I meet a ganja grower among his many marijuana plants.

The grower, who wants to remain unnamed, is a Rasta man in his late 60s, whose rough hands and bleached dreadlocks suggest he has worked the land all of his life.

As I clamber up the near vertical hillside, struggling to stay upright, this man who is a good 30 years older than me negotiates the slopes like a mountain goat.

The ganja in his half-acre plot is grown in between other crops so that it cannot be seen from the air.

Image caption, Marijuana plants are grown among other crops to hide them from the eyes of the police

In the past few years, he has had a two-acre field destroyed by police who fly over the area in helicopters looking for the plant.

"I smoke it, I boil it, I eat it, and drink it as medicine," he says. "And I love to see the beauty of the plant" he adds.

I ask him what he thinks of the legalisation debate. "Hopefully [they will legalise it], but the government is dragging its feet," he says.

"I don't know why, we produce the best ganja in the world and they fail to legalise it, so I am advertising it," he adds.

Full circle

Ganja was first introduced to Jamaica by indentured Indian workers in the 19th Century and grew wild across the island.

It was declared illegal a century ago but recently there have been moves to decriminalise it.

Jamaican minister Philip Paulwell has said he hopes to steer a law decriminalising marijuana through parliament by the end of 2014.

And at the end of last year, Jamaica's first medical marijuana company was launched with the official blessing of the government.

Ministers lauded the possibilities of the new industry.

Dr Henry Lowe, a leading researcher into the use of Jamaican plants as herbal remedies, says the country already has decades of experience in this field.

"We could be said to be the pioneers, as back in the 1970s we produced the first commercial product, which was Canasol [cannabis-based eyedrops] for glaucoma," he explains.

"The wheel has come full circle," he adds. "It was all about smoking and illicit use, now we want to make it licit and legal and to use our science and technology to make new products," he says.

Jamaica is trying to implement new laws to allow firms like Dr Lowe's Medicanja legally to develop medical marijuana without falling foul of the law by getting hold of the raw material.

'Losing out'

Some in Jamaica, like the Ganja Law Reform Coalition, would like to see the government go further and are arguing for legalisation rather than just decriminalisation.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption, Uruguay legalised marijuana in December 2013

But some of those growing the crop illegally say they do not want a change in the law, as they fear the licences to grow the plants would only go to those with the right connections.

In the mountains overlooking Kingston, I meet another ganja grower. But this man has decided to stop growing marijuana, saying that he has had "too many close shaves" with the police.

He argues that a change in the law will not cut down on crime, as pro-legalisation activists argue, but only drive criminals into other illegal activities.

"If it becomes legal, the big men won't make as much money and they'll have to find new ways to make money," he says.

Another grower in the rural parish of St Mary fears small scale marijuana farmers like himself would lose out if the drug is legalised.

Image source, AP
Image caption, While many users are pressing for legalisation, some small scale growers fear they may lose out

He, too, thinks that the licences to grow the plants would be awarded to "bigger heads", and he would no longer be able to pay for his children's school fees.

In January, Jamaican Foreign Minister AJ Nicholson also urged caution, saying that the island's history as a major exporter of marijuana meant that the island was bound by international agreements on curbing drug trafficking, and that any change in its laws would therefore have to take into account its international commitments.

But with Uruguay and even some US states blazing a trail, and parts of Jamaica's research and scientific community pressing for a change, Jamaica's 1913 Ganja law may not stand in its current form much longer.

Related Topics

More on this story