Medicinal Cannabis Industry – The promise and the peril
On Tuesday, Parliamentarians passed two Bills that have fundamentally altered the legal regime governing marijuana use in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG).
Specifically designed to transform SVG into an international centre for the medical marijuana industry, the Bills do four things. First, they legalize the cultivation of marijuana for medicinal use; second, they legalize the use of medical marijuana; third, they offer an amnesty to existing marijuana cultivators who turn in their existing crop to the appropriate government agency; and fourth, they create a licensing system that allows local marijuana cultivators to lawfully engage in the cultivation of marijuana.
We cannot understate the historic import of this legislative moment. It has altered decades of a medical, legal, and political consensus which treated marijuana as nothing more than a dangerous narcotic. Nor were these constraints groundless. All narcotics are inherently dangerous precisely because they alter mood and behaviour and carry the risk of addiction. And in the instance of marijuana, we remain concerned that marijuana use negatively impacts the development of young brains.
The creation of a new legal universe to aid the development of a medical marijuana industry is therefore riddled with pot holes that the government must navigate. Much of this lies within the intent of the laws themselves: confining marijuana use within a lawful medical framework.
In a country where the marijuana is already cultivated outside of the law, marijuana cultivators are unlikely to accept the offer of amnesty if they do not feel they will benefit financially and otherwise by participating within the new legal constructs. What therefore will happen if some cultivators participate in the legal market and some do not? Will the illegal cultivators continue to be prosecuted with the same vigour as before? Worse, what happens if some cultivators participate in both the legal and illegal market? Similar questions arise for the use of medical marijuana. How do you distinguish between medical and recreational use of marijuana between individuals, or more complicated, the same individual?
We are confident that many of these questions were pondered during the meetings of the Select Committee but they are so important that they bear repeating.
For the custodians of the law, navigating between the legal and illegal use of marijuana by cultivators and users would be complex, treacherous, and would demand rigorous demarcation of the dividing lines between legal and illegal conduct. More critically, it would demand intensive training of law enforcement officials and persons in the medical field to avoid the kind of confusion that will arise among people who do not properly recognize these distinctions.
Perhaps quite instructive in this regard is the shelving of the third Bill that had been designed to offer protections to Rastafarians for their use of marijuana for religious purposes. Apparently resistance by some Rastafarians about the Government’s authority to issue such legislation and the possible intrusion that may result persuaded the Government to table the bill.
Interestingly, it can be said that by maintaining the existing legal regime that criminalizes marijuana use for recreational use (including religious use) the Government is already exercising an authority in Rastas’ use of marijuana. The proposed legislation would simply represent the Government returning autonomy to Rastafarians in the use of the herb for religious purposes.
But determining who is a Rasta and when the herb is being used for a religious rather than a recreational purpose is a can of worms that if opened, is not easy to close. And it underlines the fundamental difficulty in governance that arises when one moves from the simple proposition that marijuana is illegal in all circumstances to the more complex position that it is legal in clearly defined spaces.
Despite these concerns, moving marijuana from the shadow economy to the legitimate economy is a good advertising boon for the industry and we may indeed derive great financial benefit if we can create a niche within the global economy at a time when we do not have a monopoly on any good or service in huge demand across the world. A medical marijuana industry might just be the boost that we need. We are marijuana producers and we have been so for a long time. These laws guarantee that marijuana will continue to be firmly rooted in our economic future.
And finally, as we contemplate the benefits we stand to gain from creating a medical marijuana industry, let us not ignore one of the more urgent questions that would flow from this: How can we commit ourselves to limit the harm that could result from any potential increase in use of marijuana outside of medical supervision? Remember, some have been hailing it as ‘the holy herb’. As Bob Marley himself warns us, “Do not gain the world, and lose your soul. Wisdom is better than silver and gold.”