Jamaica Hosts “Candid Conversation about Cannabis” with Regulators, Officials

While Jamaica’s industry awaits long-delayed rules for exports, local regulators and policymakers focused this week on one critical step in that process: quality control.

In observance of World Accreditation Day, which will be held on June 9, the Jamaica National Agency for Accreditation (JANAAC) held a virtual forum on Wednesday that centered on “Jamaica’s Cannabis Industry and the Supporting Role of Accreditation.” A major theme was the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 9, which is “industry, innovation and infrastructure.” More broadly, officials and regulators emphasized that Wednesday’s event should be considered a “candid conversation about cannabis.” 

In 2015, Jamaica became the first Caribbean nation to legalize cannabis for medical, therapeutic, and scientific purposes. Since then, local leaders have been eager to see Jamaicans claim their piece of the global cannabis economy. But, as Cannabis Wire has reported, the country’s cannabis industry, which has attracted international interest, has been in a holding pattern of sorts, due recently in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Jamaica’s industry is still waiting on export rules, which were promised last April.

Jamaica’s domestic cannabis industry has “a lot of catching up to do if it is going to hold on to a piece of the pie of the global cannabis industry,” Audley Shaw, Minister of Industry, Investment and Commerce said in a February meeting at the Ministry. 

The speakers during Wednesday’s event included Norman Dunn, State Minister in the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce; Levaughn Flynn, chair of the Cannabis Licensing Authority; Simon Roberts, chair of JANAAC; Sharonmae Shirley, CEO of JANAAC; Diane Edwards, the president of the Jamaica Promotions Corporation; Jason Henzell, vice president of  the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica; and Richard Crawford, president of the Ganja Growers and Producers Association of Jamaica.

Dunn emphasized the need for a candid conversation about cannabis because “it gives us the ability to discuss openly and freely about an industry which has been in the dark for a very long time.” 

Dunn highlighted how global policies have affected the development of Jamaica’s cannabis economy. The United Nations placed cannabis in the most restrictive category of its main global drug control treaty, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, decades ago, Dunn said, and “it placed into motion all that has transpired all these years for this particular product called ganja.” 

Last December, during its reconvened 63rd Session in Vienna, Austria, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs held a vote on World Health Organization recommendations that placed the debate over cannabis as medicine under a global spotlight, as Cannabis Wire reported. While six cannabis-related recommendations were up for a vote, only one narrowly passed, and it suggested that cannabis be rescheduled in such a way that it is considered a medicine. 

“So what is the truth? The truth is that they’ve all got it wrong. And it’s time that we have a candid conversation that they all got it wrong and they ignored the indigenous user for all these years,” Dunn said. “We hope that the time will come when it’s been removed completely from the schedule.” 

But the ripple effect of prohibition, Dunn said, started not with the UN, but with  the United States, and it’s decision to pass the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, effectively banning cannabis. 

“The United States in particular is always held up, in most cases, as a dominant business partner in the world with a dominant language of English. That has always set the stage, in most cases, for how the world moves. And therefore that event in 1937 has set off a series of prohibition,” Dunn said. “And it stifled the development of a product that meant so much to so many people. In the case of Jamaica, the Rastafarians were persecuted, literally, for using the substance.”

Dunn pointed out, though, how difficult it is for lawmakers and regulators to create localized cannabis policies that are in dissonance with international policies. 

“We also see the importance of our international obligations because Jamaica still needs to operate as a part of the world stage. We cannot operate in a vacuum. And therefore, it is international obligations that we have already signed on to that still mean something for the credibility of Jamaica. And therefore, is it important now as we walk through the rain drops, because that’s what it’s going to take for us to be a part of that multibillion dollar industry,” Dunn said. 

Dunn added that JANAAC’s offer of “accreditation and conformity skills” to the country’s cannabis industry is “so important” to help it “grow and develop.”

Roberts, chair of JANAAC, said that Jamaica is the only Caribbean signatory to the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation Mutual Recognition of Arrangements, which “increases the acceptance of products across national borders and eliminates the need for additional testing and or inspection of imports and exports, thus reducing technical barriers to trade.” 

“As we highlight the growth potential for Jamaica’s cannabis industry, public and private sector businesses are encouraged to tap into JANAAC’s accreditation services to increase the overall competitiveness of this industry and to provide confidence to the systems and processes used to advance the , manufacture, packaging, and sale of medicinal marijuana and other cannabis products in the marketplace,” Roberts said. 

One topic loomed large during the conference: what’s the status of banking services for Jamaica’s cannabis industry? The short answer: it’s hamstrung by the United States federal government’s continuation of federal prohibition, creating a “hindrance” to the development of Jamaica’s industry. 

Flynn, the chair of the CLA since February, also spoke about the hurdles thrown at Jamaica’s cannabis industry by United States

“Our hands really are tied as it relates to the banking sector. And the simple reason is that because most of our local banks do correspond in banking with the US banks, and cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, the banks aren’t going to take on the risk of doing business with a local cannabis company because they put their entire business at risk, potentially losing their banking license,” Flynn said. 

Dunn mentioned the House passage of the SAFE Banking Act, and said that he’s hopeful that the Senate will take up the legislation and pass it, given that “more Republicans are now supporting it than ever before.” 

Flynn, too, pointed to the possible momentum of the SAFE Banking Act in Congress, and said that once that legislation passes, “that will have a domino effect pretty much on the rest of the world, including Jamaica.” 

Dunn called on Jamaican lawmakers to fine tune rules to guide the cannabis industry as soon as possible, and to do so before Jamaica is left behind in the Caribbean, where cannabis law reform was picking up momentum before the pandemic hit, as Cannabis Wire reported

“We are so hamstrung by the legislation that we have here,” Dunn said. “If we do not change it, and everywhere opens up apart from us, we’re going to be completely left behind. And we will not, with all the accreditation and conformity assessment, we will not participate adequately in this multi-billion dollar industry. So we are working, locally, on how quickly can we change the regulations?” 

While cannabis is not yet allowed for adult, or recreational, use in Jamaica, Dunn said that he understands that “liberty and civil liberty is important.” 

“I still believe that persons have the right to choose,” he added.

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