Jamaica and Its Widely Praised Ganja Reform Are at a Crossroads

Jamaica decriminalized cannabis last year, thanks in a large part to Justice Minister Mark Golding. But Golding’s party was voted out of power last week. There’s a good chance his replacement will move forward on reform, but it’s no sure thing.

In April 2015, the government of Jamaica, under the People’s National Party, amended the Dangerous Drugs Act (DDA) to decriminalize cannabis possession, legalize home cultivation of up to five plants for medicinal and sacramental use, and create a new, licensed industry for medical cannabis and hemp. Such reform was hailed at home and abroad.

However, the recent upset results of the parliamentary election have brought the opposition, the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), into power. This is likely to slow the island’s current push to regulate its ganja industry.

The architect of the law was outgoing Minister of Justice, Sen. Mark Golding. After decades of domestic debate, Golding, while recognizing Jamaica’s international obligations under the established drug control conventions, sought to “bring the law more in line with the conditions and expectations” on the island. Minister Golding became a champion of ganja reform on the international stage. In May of last year at the U.N.’s High Level Thematic Debate on International Drug Policy, he stated that “Jamaica is in favor of the establishment of an expert advisory group to review the U.N. drug-policy control architecture, its system-wide coherence, treaty inconsistencies and the legal tension of cannabis regulation.” In November of last year, Minister Golding was honored with an achievement award by the Drug Policy Alliance, perhaps the leading drug reform advocacy group in the United States, at their annual gala.

Ganja was not a factor in this election, which focused on unemployment and national debt. Mr. Golding will step down after the JLP’s win earlier this week.  It appears that the international reform movement has lost one of its most prestigious advocates for change in cannabis law. More concerning is that Mr. Golding had never approved, as required by law, the final regulations that are to govern the future ganja industry on the island.

Potentially more problematic is the fact that the current 16-member board of the Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA) will have to resign, allowing the new government to reappoint or replace members.

Prior to the election, the Cannabis Licensing Authority is drafting interim regulations, with the intention of accepting license applications starting in April. These interim regulations were to serve as a basis for more comprehensive regulations that were to be submitted to Cabinet for final approval by the Minister of Justice. The elections have probably pushed back these timetables. Absent the law’s chief architect at home and leading face of reform abroad, what will happen to Jamaica’s regulated ganja industry?

It’s likely that Mr. Golding will be replaced by Mr. Delroy Chuck who currently serves that position in the Shadow Cabinet. Chuck, who served as Minister of Justice under the previous government, seems to recognize the need for legal changes. In 2011, he oversaw the transfer of cases dealing with minor cannabis possession from the Resident Magistrates Court to Petty Sessions Courts in order to reduce the case backlog. This meant that those found to be in possession of smaller amounts were processed through a minor crimes court, facing reduced penalties.

More recently, when the Government was debating the DDA Amendment in mid-2014, he questioned Mr. Golding in Parliament over the lack of a ganja bill. After its passage Mr. Chuck stated that “the new law brings Jamaican law in line with its culture, especially in rural areas where cannabis use is widespread.”

It appears that Mr. Chuck, if nominated to serve as incoming Minister of Justice, will finish what Mr. Golding started. However, the new government may appoint new members to the CLA. Comprised of a diverse group of government agencies with competing policy preferences, the CLA is more of a political hydra than a technical body. As a regulatory authority, the Authority is very weak. When I was meeting with its members last August, it had no standing budget or dedicated staff. Its members were hotly debating the most complicated aspects of comprehensive regulations (license allocation, product availability, taxes and fees, etc).

Now that interim regulations have been agreed upon, any attempt by the new government to reopen the debate on regulations may unnecessarily impede the process and upset voters who are eager to see an industry take root. The JLP needs to consider the progress made thus far and seek to keep technical and competent members of the CLA and consolidate island-wide ganja policy.

Disclaimer: I worked with BOTEC Analysis Corporation during July and August of 2015 to advise the Jamaican government and CLA on regulatory recommendations, including licensing, market sizing, taxation, and organizational structures.

One thought on “Jamaica and Its Widely Praised Ganja Reform Are at a Crossroads”

  1. Great summary.

    I can't miss the irony in the JLP upset. PNP could have waited as long as a full year (if i recall correctly) longer before calling the election, which in any case was expected to be an easy win, but they moved it up to February because they figured that the extra-cheap oil prices made for a particularly incumbent-friendly political environment.

    But when you say that Jamaica is at a crossroads, is this the crossroads you were referring to? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMYAEHE2GrM

Comments are closed.