Jamaica’s Big Bet on Cannabis Research Partnerships

Jamaica was the first country in the Caribbean to legalize cannabis for medical, scientific, and therapeutic purposes, back in 2015. Now it is pioneering in another way, by trying to leverage research partnerships in the United States to become a global competitor in the medical cannabis industry.  

The partner? Harvard. Audley Shaw, Jamaica’s Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture, and Fisheries, has announced a partnership with the International Phytomedicines and Medical Cannabis Institute (IPI) at Harvard University. Jamaica, in fact, is the first country that Harvard IPI will be partnering with, Wilfred Ngwa, director of Global Health Catalyst at Harvard, which houses Harvard IPI, told Cannabis Wire.

The partnership between the two came about after Shaw attended the Global Health Catalyst Summit at Harvard in May, an annual summit to promote international collaborations to eliminate global health disparities, Shaw told Cannabis Wire. He then made the announcement in September, at the CanEx Jamaica Business Conference and Expo—an annual conference for the global cannabis industry. 

The partnership aims to develop “high-quality” Jamaican cannabis strains for domestic and international cannabis markets, Ngwa said. Jamaica is looking to brand itself as having some of the world’s best cannabis strains, he said. 

And that is where Harvard IPI and its partner institutions—such as the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Baylor College of Medicine, Purdue University, and the University of Pennsylvania—come in: to conduct unbiased, evidence-based research on the effectiveness of Jamaican strains of cannabis.   

With good results, the Jamaican economy could benefit. Jamaica expects the partnership to “deepen scientific research on medicinal plants found in Jamaica, for economic development,” according to Shaw. He adds that the partnership “has the potential to transform and diversify the Jamaican national economy.” 

Harvard IPI and Jamaica are in the process of drafting an agreement, which Shaw wants finalized by the end of the year, Ngwa said. 

The partnership agreement will also include protections for the intellectual property rights of Jamaica, Ngwa added. If Jamaica produces a strain that is helpful in cancer treatment, for example, and Harvard researches the strain with them, the agreement will ensure that the “people of Jamaica benefit from that strain,” Ngwa said. Jamaica, for its part, plans to leverage the indigenous knowledge of its agronomists and traditional herbalists in relation to plant-based medicines to gain “intellectual property rights and part ownership of patents,” according to Shaw. 

At CanEx last month, Shaw expressed his ministry’s commitment to expanding the country’s local cannabis industry. “It is obvious that we must take advantage of the opportunities for engagement at all levels,” Shaw said at CanEx, referring to the partnership with Harvard IPI and the institute’s other university partners. The partnership, Shaw told Cannabis Wire, would allow Jamaica to conduct clinical trials of medical cannabis and to “validate the safety and efficacy” of its products, as well as figure out the right dosages. 

But while “extensive investment is being made on the ground” to develop the country’s cannabis industry, the pace of growth has been slow, Shaw told Cannabis Wire.  

Yet Ngwa said when he and his team—including researchers from IPI’s partner institutions—made a trip to Jamaica last week, “We were very happy, actually surprised, to see what they already have in terms of infrastructure for cultivation and extraction,” Ngwa said. The group went to meet with state officials and researchers at the University of West Indies, the North Carribean University, and the Ministry of Science, Energy, and Technology’s Scientific Research Council, among other research institutions. 

Jamaica is also moving to establish a phytomedicines institute of its own, which will be partnering with Harvard IPI on the research. Shaw announced the institute at a press conference in Kingston, Jamaica, on October 1. The Institute is still in the planning stage, and no estimate for when it might be launched has been made yet. “Discussions continue regarding the design, roles and responsibility, partnerships and IP rights sharing, among other things,” Shaw said. “Approval from our Cabinet will thereafter need to be sought for the development of the Institute.”

Harvard’s institute, whose goal is to ensure equal access to healthcare and economic growth across countries through the development of phytomedicines including cannabis, is planning on engaging the African countries of South Africa, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, Ngwa said. The institute has already spoken to Brylyne Chitsunge, the pan-African ambassador for food security, who was also present at the Global Health Catalyst Summit in May. 

Meanwhile, officials from another Carribean country, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines—which decriminalized cannabis last December and issued its first licenses for commercial cannabis cultivation in July—have also reached out to attend the next Summit in 2020, Ngwa said. “We expect to have more countries involved,” he said. 

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