The Church’s response to the establishment of a medical cannabis industry in SVG (part 2)
THE CHRISTIAN COUNCIL & OTHER CHURCH ORGANIZATIONS RESPONSE TO THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A MEDICAL CANNABIS INDUSTRY IN SVG (PART 2)
The St. Vincent and the Grenadines Christian Council in conjunction with The Seventh-day Adventist Church, St. Vincent and the Grenadines Mission, The Association of Evangelical Churches and Spiritual Baptist Archdiocese are pleased to issue the following joint statement, noting several observations as they continue to be concerned regarding the nature and pace of advancements in respect of the establishment of a Medical Cannabis Industry in St Vincent and the Grenadines.
The Christian Council, having been invited to be a part of the select committee whose purview it is to review the proposed legislation governing a Medical Cannabis Industry, without compromising the process, believes there are several issues of concern which are critical in navigating this endeavour.
Our participation in this process, particularly at this moment, on the Select Committee is not to be understood as support for this endeavour nor evidence of vacillation and uncertainty, rather it is informed by a perspective that if your caution or warning is ignored there is still “responsibleness” in contributing to minimize the potential adverse outcomes. Further, it is our hope that our engagement in this process can reflect the kind of respect and maturity we encourage in national discourse where we can disagree and have strong divergent views, yet still respectfully engage.
Our position in summary
The Churches believe that the scientific and anecdotal information regarding the medical benefits of Marijuana are sufficiently credible for a nation to conceptualize and pursue a Medical Marijuana Industry or more conservatively, legal access to Medical Marijuana. The Churches also believe that there is enough information available to suggest that substantial revenues can be obtained from such an industry. The Churches are of the considered opinion however that there is sufficient historical experience, anecdotal and scientific information regarding the deleterious impact of Marijuana on individuals and society, especially on youth to necessitate great caution in the pursuit of such an Industry. With respect to establishing such an industry in St Vincent and the Grenadines; we continue to contend that the multiplicity of variables requires a sufficiency of research and thoroughness of investigation, conversation and consultation to speculate regarding the social and economic impact and determine our capacity to ensure not only a “net benefit” but to ask whether the cost is too high or whether the benefits are worth the ‘price’.
We appreciate the invitation and opportunity to participate in the process especially in shaping the legal framework for this industry. Though sharing different views regarding the pursuit of the industry, we commend the Government on its resistance to what we consider to be ‘irresponsible overtures’ towards full legalisation or legalisation for recreational use. We are also of the view, from a layman and neophyte’s perspective, that the legislation is very thoroughgoing and reflects an awareness of the necessary caution that needs be employed. We appreciate further, that access to Medical Marijuana may enable persons dealing with particular illnesses to find comfort, relief or even resolution. We are also mindful that a successful industry can enable significant revenue.
Important issues – MARIJUANA A GATEWAY DRUG
The vexatious nature of this issue is in part informed by historical and changing attitudes towards this ‘herb’ that is a narcotic (narkōtikós – A ‘numbing’ substance that blunts the senses, produces euphoria, stupor, or coma and may cause addiction) and as such has a psychoactive impact on the brain with a significant risk of damage to a young and developing brain.
While it has become popular to declare that Marijuana is no longer considered a gateway drug we are mindful that the research and conversation on this matter is still inconclusive. What we have observed is that among the methods used (and with good reason) is; where a research sample identifies 1,000 persons who use Marijuana and discover only 20 of that 1,000 go on to use “hard drugs”. This evidence reasonably indicates that there is no necessary relationship between Marijuana and hard drugs, therefore it is not a gateway drug. What has, at times, not been sufficiently considered is the reverse approach where If you take 1,000 persons who are on hard drugs, you may discover 600 of that number having their introduction to a narcotic by ‘pot’. The contextualizing of this data is even more crucial since researchers in the dialogue on gateway drugs contend that several other social, economic and accessibility factors inform people’s drug habits and choices. In St Vincent and the Grenadines our experience is sufficiently substantial for the anecdotal and observational either to be taken seriously of itself or to provoke serious research BEFORE advancing a Marijuana Industry. Few would credibly contest that the view and experience of many Vincentians is that the vast majority of our youth on hard drugs had their introduction to a narcotic by ‘weed’. To many Vincentians (users and observers) through the years marijuana is a gateway drug.
This observation along with the testimony of many drug users who inform that the first ‘high’ stimulates a desire for more ‘highs’ and ‘higher heights’ provide potent argument for us to consider the POTENTIAL impact a marijuana industry can have on our youth and drug abuse along with the related problem of crime and violence. However regulated the industry would be and however ‘low’ the ‘high’ from the Industry variety (in the first instance) what it amounts to is increased access to a narcotic by our youth and a psychoactive titivation which can still stimulate the appetite for more or greater. We need to also bear in mind that this ‘opened door’ to a particular variety and purpose has also forced the issue of the legal access to the high grade. While access for religious purposes is expected to be heavily regulated, we are mindful that our institutional capacities often make enforcement problematic or minimal. It is equally critical that we admit that medical marijuana is not a specific type of marijuana but a particular purpose for using marijuana. What this means is that the industry will invariably determine what strains we produce. There is no reason to believe that research will not emerge to validate a demand for the ‘high grade’. This Medical Cannabis Industry will invariably mean increased access to ‘low’ and ‘high’ grades of marijuana.
THE RISK OF ACCESS – Institutional capacity
This connects us to other concerns, among them; the experience of countries and cities with greater capacity and monitoring machinery than St Vincent who are challenged to limit diversion (transferring cannabis to illegal use and trade), youth having increased access to the drug and struggle to curtail a black market which capitalizes on the increase sympathy and presence of the marijuana.
While the legislation may be robust, our Vincentian experience cannot be whitewashed. We must admit our limitations and myriad challenges in effective implementation and sustaining. Key to our new Industry will be the role of inspectors. They have a mammoth task of ensuring the integrity of the Industry and by extension preserving our credibility before international institutions. We already have a significant cadre of Agricultural Extension Officers, how efficient and effective have they been and other similar functionaries in fulfilling expectations and obligations? While, in contrast to the Medical Cannabis Industry, there is no direct law contravened in cases of negligence, questions like this are worth considering with respect to enabling a healthy work culture and work ethic to facilitate the effective function of inspectors?
Have we reviewed audits done in Colorado and any other jurisdiction where an effort was made to assess the effectiveness of the so-called seed-to-sale system of regulating Medical Marijuana? Are we aware that the 2016 Colorado report, a jurisdiction with much greater institutional capacity than St Vincent, summarily reported by the Denver Post, stated that “Often lauded as a national model, Colorado’s so-called seed-to-sale system of regulating Medical Marijuana does not exist, auditors found”
The high-risk group requiring careful attention is our youth. Have we considered the implication of the 2016 report on Student Drug Use in 13 Caribbean Countries?
Some observations of note:
1. The highest incidence of Marijuana use was Antigua and correspondingly they also had the greatest ease of access.
2. Alcohol which is legal and therefore easily accessible has a significantly higher percentage of use among our youth than Marijuana. The idea that making something legal takes away appetite and desire needs to be questioned or shelved. It is also obvious that accessibility often increases use.
3. The research also affirmed a relationship between youth drug use and behavioural issues.
Have we considered the reports from Colorado and other States or Countries which indicate that there was an increase in school suspensions post Marijuana legalization? While our primary focus is on the Medical Industry, are their fundamental lessons particularly informed by the matter of product access that can be instructive?
Have we done the research regarding the impact of Marijuana on our youth in St Vincent and the Grenadines, considering the number of patients at the Psychiatric Hospital who are experiencing Marijuana Psychosis and whose mental health narrative includes Marijuana use? Have we considered and explored the narrative of crime in St Vincent and the Grenadines and considered the claim that many of our youth in crime have been involved in some form of drug abuse or misuse, a narrative which substantially includes Marijuana? Have we visited our prisons to ascertain whether there is any truth in the view that most of the inmates are Marijuana users with a significant percentage moving on to, or simply on harder drugs? Is a possible significant correlation between crime in St Vincent and the Grenadines and Marijuana use sufficiently critical for adequate investigation to be pursued before creating a space for increased access to weed?
The impact of increased access to concentrates
To what extent have we done the research and made the information available for critique; where some jurisdictions (Colorado included) recorded a spike in drug use after the legalization of Marijuana (for them too medicinal was the precursor to ‘full’ legalization)? Have we sufficiently considered, even though this is intended to be a heavily regulated Industry, what the implications would be for drug abuse with increased access to highly concentrated THC oils and other Marijuana by-products, albeit for medicinal purposes? In other jurisdictions has there been a great demand for this potent narcotic on the black market and if so how have they, and can we realistically manage such?
There is good reason to anticipate a windfall (of revenues) in the preliminary years of the Industry however, have we sufficiently considered the possibility and implications of having large Marijuana farms and no markets – because companies have pulled out? While the regulations seek to tie the cultivation necessarily to the supply, and while some consideration has been given to potential areas of breach, have we given sufficient consideration that variations in implementation can very well leave us with plantations and not ready markets? Have we considered the possibility that Marijuana can become our new Banana – where, we have little or no market advantage to compete with other countries with larger farms and cheaper products?
Or have we considered, as scientifically as practicable, that the science regarding Marijuana is relatively ‘young’ and as such with increasing acceptance and access comes greater research and scrutiny which gives rise to research claims like that of the American College of Cardiology who contend that Marijuana Use is Associated with Increased Risk of Stroke and Heart Failure? To what extent have we considered Marijuana’s complex nature and its evolution over the years to a less “natural” and more potent drug and the implications this has on the longevity of the Industry? As the research emerges, is it possible that this increasingly ‘unnatural’ herb and the discovery of the nature and impact of the various components of Marijuana can leave us with products and a substantially changed weed and drug culture to negotiate? This also is a question of sufficiency of research and responsible speculation.
Have we considered the imperialistic and neo-colonial undertones to this new ‘cash cow’? To what extent in our quest to have a windfall are we pandering to, and perpetuating an ideological and existential phenomenon built on principles of exploitation and manipulation using money and monetization and the primary medium? Have we sufficiently considered the possibility that the global landscape of this Industry is about making space for large companies and corporations who determine the regulatory framework, which create opportunity for them to capitalize while ensuring (whether deliberately or coincidentally) that the small man is excluded or marginal? A process which manipulatively uses the legitimate concern of protecting our youth and society from the proliferation of a narcotic.
To what extent have we analysed the narrative of drug use locally and globally which reflects that in most jurisdictions the significant at-risk demographic in the trade of narcotics and intoxicants are the poor? Research and observational data continues to reveal that the vast majority of wealth from Alcohol and drug trade reflects a major disproportion in profit verses use since the more affluent benefit while the poor are the major consumers and disproportionately carry the burdens of abuse and dysfunction? As such, have we considered who (potentially) will be our greatest causalities in an environment where there will inevitably be an increased access to a narcotic, and correspondingly, who will prosper? Have we considered that this Industry and the rapidly increasing interest in liberalization has little to do with the “Herb” and its medicinal benefits or religious significance and ‘everything’ to do with the commercialization of Marijuana or in some cases of the commercialization THC as a cash cow, since Marijuana may have the greatest potential for creating legal space or loopholes to facilitate trade in a narcotic – a drug trade where millions of dollars are already being made?
What have we learnt from the Tobacco Industry? Is there a need, as part of this exploration and imperialism narrative, to monitor Tobacco Companies’ interest in the Marijuana Industry? How do we mitigate against them and others so commercializing weed by introducing methods of making the product more appealing (such as menthol additives) and finding ways of optimizing the psychoactive effect, ‘deliberately’ making it more addictive? Shouldn’t we ask these kinds of questions to avoid “biting off more than we can chew”?
The need for speculation, morally and regarding policy is critical. Speculation does not by itself determine whether or not we take a particular action – we cannot fail to do something only because the possibility exists for worse, however if the possibility of worse exists, we ought to question whether the journey is sufficiently beneficial for the risk of the first step to be taken.
With the introduction of a Medical Cannabis Industry comes greater sympathy towards this narcotic, a “de-stigmatization”. As such many unapologetically anticipate, informed by narratives already known, that the next inevitable step is legalization for recreational use before full legalization. Relatedly, if and very likely, when Medical Marijuana revenues begin to diminish in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, doesn’t that also make greater ‘wiggle’ room for the illegal trade and a shift to recreational use liberalization?
Have we sufficiently explored the thesis that legalization of Medical Marijuana is really an opening of the door for a scheme of increased access, through regulations, to other dangerous drugs? Are we aware that the Drug Policy Alliance is believed to be actively involved in the advocacy for Medical Marijuana in anticipation of the process: Medical Marijuana, high potency extracts to recreational Marijuana to full legalization (regulation) of Marijuana to legalization and regulation of other dangerous drugs? Once Marijuana is legalized for recreational use especially with the high THC strains being engineered, it is almost impossible to reasonably keep the door closed for other drugs. Have we given due consideration and done the research regarding the view that the ‘real’ money is not in Medical Marijuana, but recreational. As with the illegal trade, the money is not in grandma using it for arthritis but in the illicit use of the substance; a usage which is often dominated by the poor and vulnerable?
We are concerned that while there has continued to be a significantly high level of Marijuana use in St Vincent and the Grenadines and while it is also true that many of the users have demonstrated no major adverse effect in the short term and at times in the long term, there are sufficient examples of our youth who have been seriously harmed by Marijuana use, either by itself or as an introduction to other drugs and drug mixtures, that should provoke the kind of concern that causes apprehension and reservation. Every life in St Vincent and the Grenadines is of immeasurable value. While policy may not often be directed by exceptions, there are sufficient exceptions regarding the deleterious impact of Marijuana on our youth, especially when considering the nature and consequences of that impact for the application of the principle of ‘erring on the side of caution’.
The Collaborative position of the Churches represented above is that it is not convinced, especially in view of the limited and lacking contextual research, that our anticipated benefits will sufficiently outweigh the costs especially and particularly the cost to the most ‘vulnerables’ of our society. We appreciate the need for and importance of a strong revenue stream, for vibrant economic ventures and for access to medical treatment that can improve well-being but we are also mindful that many narratives of mis-development are the consequence economic pursuit, without sufficient consideration of social impact. If and when these questions we have raised have sufficiently been considered, we believe it is prudent that the answers are adequately compiled and readily available.
As Churches concerned for the will of God for our nation and grounded in biblical principles and values such as “our body is the temple of God”, “[quality of] life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” and “neighbourliness”, concerned with the holistic development of the individual and the collective, we reiterate our strong apprehension regarding the pursuit of a Medical Cannabis Industry in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. We call for thorough research and investigation regarding the potential impact of such an endeavour especially on the vulnerable of our society. We caution that pursuit of any endeavour simply to make money almost always perpetuates dehumanizing values. We encourage increased, continued and responsible dialogue based on present and presented research exploring various sides of the issue. We caution further that slighting the potential relationship with marijuana, drugs and crime can affect the general way of life for all Vincentians. We are confident that the Government of St Vincent and the Grenadines will pause in its pursuit, seriously consider, investigate and explore the issues raised as we seek to leave a noble legacy for the generations to come – Hairouna, land of the blessed (not playground of the wealthy).
• The St. Vincent and the Grenadines Christian Council
• St. Vincent and the Grenadines Mission of Seventh-day Adventists
• The Association of Evangelical Churches
• Spiritual Baptist Archdiocese