Caribbean leaders aim to cash in on cannabis culture

Caribbean leaders are looking to cash in on cannabis trade in region where the drug is widely used, freely sold and openly smoked

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 April, 2014, 9:51pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 April, 2014, 4:55am


Marijuana plants grow along roadsides, in front yards and on plantations hidden in the mountainous interior of the lush Caribbean island of St Vincent - and the cannabis bar is just a stone's throw from the police station.

Inside the camouflaged bar, a group of men smoke US$1.15 cannabis cigarettes, or joints, between sips of beer while inviting visitors to try one.

In a back room, two men share a joint as they stuff cured cannabis into tiny plastic bags.

In St Vincent and across the Caribbean, marijuana is illegal, yet it is widely used, freely sold and openly smoked - evidence of the shifting attitudes towards the drug.

Now, for the first time, Caribbean leaders - much like a growing number of American and Latin American lawmakers - are considering loosening restrictions to control and capitalise on the popular crop.

"Marijuana is the new 21st century banana," said St Vincent Foreign Minister Camillo Gonsalves - likening the forbidden substance to the Caribbean's last great cash crop - as regional leaders met behind closed doors in February to consider whether to change their laws.

On the table is everything from decriminalising small amounts of marijuana for recreational and religious use to cultivating it for medicinal purposes.

In doing so, Caribbean leaders are seeking to transform a seedy, underground economy into a source of taxable revenue.

"It's an idea whose time has come," said St Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves.

As current chairman of the 15-member Caribbean Community, he has been leading the call for "a mature, intelligent conversation" on medical marijuana and decriminalisation.

"We cannot continue, frankly, with the drug policies we have had over the years," he added.

Those policies, championed by the United States, have failed to curtail the use of marijuana.

It is widely popular throughout the Caribbean where poor, underdeveloped governments have struggled with the criminal impact of the marijuana trafficking trade.

Still, there are hurdles. As the United Nations plans a special session in 2016 on the world's growing drug problem, a contentious debate on marijuana policies is taking place, with advocates of continued drug prohibition accusing countries of ignoring UN drug treaties.

For its part, the US is quietly watching the decriminalisation discussions unfolding around the region, including in Mexico and Guatemala.

"We, the United States government, believe legalisation is not a panacea for the drug problem," said a State Department spokesman. "Evidence suggests legalised cannabis is detrimental to public health and will not improve public safety," he added.

Gonsalves and some leaders aren't so sure. They have commissioned a study on the social, legal and public health impact on their societies and the report is expected at their July meeting.

Domestically, the issue has ignited heated debate in the region's territories, where the public and even those most likely to benefit from a policy change - the growers - are divided.

A government poll shows Vincentians are evenly split on allowing marijuana for medicinal and religious purposes.

Inside a Rose Bank marijuana bar, the debate continues among growers, smoking joints.

Their community has survived, they say, because of marijuana cultivation. Ganja, as it is called on the island, has schooled children, built homes and allowed residents to survive the economic fallout from the collapse of the banana industry.

"Why are we not cashing in on the money? Why are we going to sit back and be penalised?" said customer Conroy St Hilaire.

"America doesn't want us to export it to them, so why don't we try and get the people to come here and spend their money?"