Cannabis in the Caribbean, Part I: Change is Coming

This is the first of two parts. The second will be published tomorrow. 

Cannabis reform is picking up momentum in the Caribbean. 

In recent years, jurisdictions throughout the area have softened their stance on the plant, largely through policies that have decriminalized simple possession and established robust programs for medical cannabis use and sales. 

The trend began in Jamaica, which set off a chain reaction in 2015. That year, the island nation passed a law that decriminalizes possession of up to about fifty-six grams (two ounces) of cannabis, allows for the home cultivation of up to five plants, and establishes an agency to regulate medical use. 

In 2016, the Cayman Islands followed suit, approving imports and sales of cannabis extracts and tinctures. 

Then, in 2017, Bermuda amended its Misuse of Drugs Act, effectively decriminalizing the possession of less than seven grams. In this same vein, Antigua and Barbuda approved the home cultivation of up to four plants and decriminalized the possession of up to fifteen grams last year. The country also expunged convictions for possession at or under these amounts, and is looking to regulate production for medical and religious purposes. 

And that’s just a part of the story. In 2018, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines moved to create a legal medical cannabis industry and began to issue licenses for commercial cultivation in July of this year. Similarly, last November, the Prime Minister of Dominica called for the decriminalization of simple possession.  

The government of Saint Kitts and Nevis is advancing legislation, which, according to the country’s Prime Minister, could amend the “blanket criminalization of cannabis,” potentially expunge past convictions, and establish a regime for the medical use of cannabis.

And last month, Cannabis Wire covered that Trinidad and Tobago Attorney General Faris Al Rawi introduced two bills for debate in the House of Representatives: the Cannabis Control Bill and the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Bill. While specifics remain unclear, the package of legislation will regulate the consumption, production, and distribution of cannabis, while establishing the framework for an industry. 

So things are changing. But who stands to benefit from these developments? And, more specifically, how are they shaping the lives of local residents?

The Caribbean Community (CARICOM), a coalition of twenty countries stretching from the Bahamas to Belize to Guyana, offers a lens into such questions, and would like to help shape the answers to them. 

Back in 2014, CARICOM heads of government convened in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, where they created a commission to explore the possibility of cannabis policy reform. According to Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, the legal scholar and international consultant from the University of the West Indies who chairs the Commission, the heads of government “were deeply concerned that thousands of young persons throughout the region had suffered incarceration for marijuana use.” The inconsistent application of the law, Antoine added, had “led to deep resentment and non-cooperation with law enforcement agencies.”

Then, four years later, in 2018, the Commission—formally called the CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana—released a report that suggested additional reasons for loosening up on cannabis. First of all was the chance for economic progress and jobs. “There was also a concern,” it said, “that without action, the region could be left behind because of fast-paced global trends toward law reform.” 

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But there were other concerns as well. As, Antoine wrote, “An important part of the Commission’s mandate was to undertake national consultations in Member States to harness the views of the CARICOM public.” As a result, commission members and policymakers got an earful. They “attended packed public meetings” in nine countries throughout the region, the report said, where stakeholders of all kinds spoke to broad issues—“moving beyond the narrow constraints of medical marijuana, to embrace notions of social justice, human rights, economics, regional hegemony and their right to health.”

The CARICOM Vision 

Broadly, the proponents of cannabis policy reform mostly talk of two goals—health and development. They readily point out that patients need access to affordable medicine. They also argue that revenue from the medical cannabis industry can spur economic progress in the Caribbean. 

While on the campaign trail, for instance, Albert Bryan Jr., governor of the US Virgin Islands (which legalized medical cannabis late last year), said that he believed “a properly regulated medicinal cannabis industry” could both “provide relief to those seeking alternatives to conventional medicine” and “be an economic driver attracting new revenues.” Similarly, the 2018 CARICOM Report on cannabis stated that “prohibition is preventing the region from taking advantage of the economic opportunities in the cannabis industry and medical research,” in addition to impeding access “to medicine that can heal more effectively and cheaply than traditional pharmaceuticals.” 

Those who advocate for the cannabis industry in the region also maintain that domestic cultivation could generate employment for locals. But they warn, too, of the danger of exploitation. In its report, the CARICOM Commission advises that member states should be attuned to the “tensions between small local farmers and large enterprises, including foreign companies.” Small, landless farmers, it underscores, must be included in the development of land tenure and licensing strategies. 

Additionally, to “safeguard our hegemony and future development interests,” the Commission suggested that industry development in the Caribbean region “should be premised on innovation and not unduly rely on the provision of raw products.” 

Such a concern is shared by nations throughout the Americas. In Colombia, for instance, lawmakers solidified the country’s role in the global market by making it a point to craft a medical cannabis law that forced foreign companies to manufacture and innovate within its borders. In this way, they ensured that Colombia would not be reduced to solely exporting the raw material. 

The CARICOM Commission’s report suggests similar measures, warning that the “Liberalisation and legal reform of marijuana cannot be undertaken in an ad hoc way, without a proper appreciation of the deep historical inequities between CARICOM states, as a group of underdeveloped, often exploited nation-states and companies from large, powerful nations interested in marijuana as an industry.” 

In a section labeled “Unequal Trade Relationships and Foreign Control,” the report goes on to say that while multinational corporations can provide “significant capital investments,” they have a tendency to limit the transfer of knowledge and technology “in areas relating to production, processing, and research and development.” Caribbean governments, the Commission underscores, can ensure that policies encouraging such transfers are written into agreements with multinational corporations. 

Moreover, given the unique strains of cannabis in the region, the commission encouraged officials to craft legislation that provides for the protection of seeds and strains “through intellectual property mechanisms.” 

CARICOM, the report concludes, “must avoid the unequal paradigms that were experienced in other trade arrangements and learn lessons from historical experiences with other crops and indigenous services. These include sugar, cocoa, bananas, offshore finance, even tourism, all of which existed within predatory relationships and too little returns for CARICOM peoples.”

Shortly after Jamaica legalized medical cannabis, Verald Vassell, a renowned Rastafarian and cannabis activist commonly known as Ras Iyah V, made a similar point in an interview with The New York Times

“If we are not organized, and are not helped, the possibility exists for the ganja industry to become the next tourism, coffee, or sugar industry,” he said,  “where our people are used as common laborers and the wealth is confined to a few.”

The Canadian Factor 

The foreign interest and investment that these Caribbean nations both hope for and worry about is already arriving, and it is largely coming from far to the north. 

Since passing its amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act in 2015, for example, Jamaica has seen an influx of Canadian influence. In September 2018, for instance, Timeless Herbal Care became the first Jamaican company to legally export cannabis, even though the Cannabis Licensing Authority has not finalized its export-import framework. Nevertheless, with the help of the Jamaican government, Timeless negotiated with Health Canada to export cannabis oil for an analysis of its chemical profile. (The process involved acquiring an import permit from Health Canada, along with an export permit from Jamaica’s Ministry of Health.)

Likewise, the Canadian-based Jamaica Medical Cannabis Corporation Ltd. signed an agreement to invest $2 million, over a span of ten years, to catalog and preserve the island’s native cannabis strains. 

In an interview with Forbes, the company’s CEO, Diane Scott, said that “farmers will not be compensated for providing their heritage strains” and are expected to “share” them with Jamaica’s National Foundation for the Development of Science and Technology. At a cannabis expo in Toronto in June 2018, the company announced contracts to provide Jamaican cannabis to three Canadian limited partnerships, as well as letters of intent to supply seven more, all pending approval from Health Canada. 

In February, Wiisag, a Canadian Indigenous cannabis company, announced a partnership with Jamaica’s Westmoreland Hemp and Ganja Farmers Association. According to the company, Wiisag will provide funding, services, and management for the association’s ten-acre pilot project to grow medical cannabis. The project was endorsed by activist Ras Iyah V, who previously warned against the exploitation of local farmers by foreign companies. 

Jacana, which has ties with the UK and Canada, has also taken root in Jamaica. Founded in 2017, the company has established a 100-acre farm in Saint Ann, the largest parish in the country. In a March 2019 interview, founder Alexandra Chong said the company was “focused only on medical markets,” but she said she imagines that its brands “could be a good fit for the adult-use market down the line.”

Canadian influence has pushed beyond Jamaica, too. In 2018, a group from Canada advised Antigua and Barbuda on draft legislation involving adult use and medical cannabis. In a statement to Telesur, officials confirmed that its Cabinet met with the group to learn about “the kinds of steps required by the government of Antigua and Barbuda in order to make possible the growing, harvesting, processing, and sale of medical cannabis in its many forms.” 

Likewise, David Burt, who serves as Bermuda’s Premier, held a highly publicized meeting last year with Bruce Linton, then-CEO of Canopy Growth Corporation. With a tweet, the premier welcomed Linton to the country, highlighting that the encounter took place following an announcement that Bermuda will establish a regime for the domestic production of medical cannabis. In one accompanying image, the caption reads: “We invite companies like Canopy to invest in local entrepreneurs to create more jobs & partnerships in Bermuda.” 

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More Cannabis in the Caribbean, Part I: Change is Coming