N Touch
Monday 10 December 2018
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Commentary

Marijuana, take it or leave it?

The issue of legalising marijuana for medical and recreational purposes is a very emotive one but there are solid arguments on both sides of the divide. In the end it comes down to the economic argument versus the ethical and health safety ones.

The economic arguments are persuasive and the political ones too. Having come of age in a just post-colonial TT, I am always reluctant to give away any advantage we might have to others more powerful than ourselves.

Ideologically, it is problematic to me and many others to know that we have been gifted a plant that self-seeds even in suburban gardens and is a most valuable crop, in huge international demand but that we happily spend tens of millions of dollars each year destroying it because it does not suit others who, in the mean time, have found ways to profit from it.

From this point of view alone, one has to question why we have not been in the vanguard of fighting for the legalisation of marijuana in the Caricom region, why we have not led in getting the necessary funding for marijuana research and in changing the laws in international trade?

If former PM ANR Robinson’s speech to the UN General Assembly in 1989 could trigger the process of establishing the International Criminal Court, with jurisdiction over international crimes, then why could we not attempt this? We clearly have the power to achieve change at the international level. Therefore, on this matter we must lack the political will and the economic vision.

I concede that the economic argument was more difficult to make three decades ago when the legal mind-altering drugs, ie, alcohol and tobacco, still had their unrestrained stranglehold on the market. The facts about the extreme harm caused by cigarettes were still kept deeply buried by tobacco manufacturers, and alcohol’s link to a whole range of chronic diseases had not yet been fully researched.

International business controls the markets for these products, so it is not an accident that whisky, made in Europe, is more widely consumed than the very best of rums, largely produced in the developing world. And, consider wine, which is also a product of European origin and has become the drink of choice by TT’s moneyed classes to match our snobbish preference for scotch over rum. Naipaul was right about mimic men, but that apart, the fact is that the alcohol producers won the economic argument by their power to lead, invest, research, strategise and create markets.

The failure of Prohibition in the 1920s-30s US is a grim example of the negative effect of partially decriminalising alcohol. It failed because producing, transporting and selling alcohol was made illegal, but not possessing or consuming it. Instead of reducing crime and corruption and resolving associated health and social ills, Prohibition turned the US into the crime centre of the world. Alcohol consumption rocketed till the federal government saw that it had to totally legalise alcohol and reverse the trend. Though it took the most reluctant states another 30 years, they too eventually gave up their temperance laws.

Argument here revolves around decriminalisation or total legalisation. I am inclined towards the latter only because it would make more sense. We should learn from the Prohibition experience. Also, apart from the economic attraction of the treasury cashing in the taxes on a billion dollar industry, rather than criminals, legalisation gives the state the chance to control the quality of the product that people consume, which is the duty of government.

As for legalising medicinal marijuana, the plant’s curative powers may have been proven but medicinal usage is a means of much smarter countries controlling the production of marijuana products, the thin end of the wedge, in other words. We are misguided to want to follow in their path when they already seized the advantage a long time ago. Meanwhile, we waste money prosecuting vulnerable people for smoking a joint when everyone knows that is simply unjust because the beneficiaries of the ban are our foreign competitors.

Increasingly countries are legalising medicinal and recreational marijuana and we in the Caribbean should have the confidence to follow suit quickly, especially our much poorer fellow Caricom members for whom black market marijuana is already what sustains their economies. We must acknowledge that similar to alcohol and tobacco, marijuana can damage us physically, can be addictive and also damage one’s mental health, but we must find ways of protecting the young and the vulnerable.

I hope we can overcome religious and moral considerations and also our prejudices to face reality and begin to devise laws and systems that serve us and allow us to exploit our economic advantages instead of letting others exploit us, yet again.

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