Caribbean countries are softening their views and laws on the cannabis plant. In recent years several have introduced policies that decriminalize simple possession and allow programs for medical cannabis. Support for the policy reform has to do with both medical and economic benefits.
Jamaica started the movement in 2015 when it passed a law that decriminalizes possession of up to about fifty-six grams (two ounces) of cannabis. It also allows home cultivation of up to five plants and established an agency to regulate medical use.
The Cayman Islands followed the next year and approved imports and sales of cannabis extracts. Bermuda then changed its Misuse of Drugs Act in 2017. With this it decriminalized the possession of less than seven grams. Antigua and Barbuda accepted home cultivation of up to four plants and decriminalized the possession of up to fifteen grams in 2018. It also eliminated convictions for possession at or under these amounts and is looking to legalize production for medical and religious purposes.
The US Virgin Islands legalized medical cannabis use in 2018. In that same year St. Vincent and the Grenadines accepted the legal medical cannabis industry and began to issue licenses for commercial cultivation in July 2019. The Prime Minister of Dominica made a plea in November 2019 for the decriminalization of simple possession. The government of Saint Kitts and Nevis is moving forward legislation, which could amend the criminalization of cannabis, erase past convictions, and set up a regime for its medical use.
Trinidad & Tobago are debating a Cannabis Control Bill and a Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Bill. This will regulate the consumption, production, and distribution of cannabis, while establishing the framework for the industry. Curaçao is now also pending Parliamentary debates and acceptance of legislation reform on cannabis.
Views and the legal framework on cannabis use are clearly changing in the Caribbean. Important questions are who will benefit from this development and how will it shape the lives of the Caribbean people.
The CARICOM view
In 2018 the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), a trade bloc and coalition of twenty Caribbean countries, published a report that offers reasons for reviewing the cannabis related laws. Four years before, in 2014, the CARICOM members created a commission to explore the possibility of cannabis policy reform. They were deeply concerned that thousands of young persons throughout the region had suffered incarceration for marijuana use. They also worried that the inconsistent application of the law had led to deep resentment and non-cooperation with law enforcement agencies.
The report that the CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana, released in 2018 suggested more reasons for loosening up on cannabis. There was the chance for economic progress and jobs and there was a concern that without action, the region could be left behind because of fast-paced global trends toward law reform. There were other concerns as well. The Commission had undertaken national consultations in the CARICOM countries to find out the views of the CARICOM public. Commission members and policymakers attended packed public meetings in nine countries throughout the region. During these meetings, stakeholders of all kinds spoke about more issues besides medical marijuana, namely of social justice, human rights, economics, regional authority and their right to health. Supporters of cannabis policy reform talk of health and economic development.
They point out that patients need access to affordable medicine and argue that revenue from the medical cannabis industry can spur economic progress in the Caribbean. A properly regulated medicinal cannabis industry can give relief to those seeking alternatives to conventional medicine and become an economic driver attracting new income. The CARICOM Report states that prohibition is preventing the region from taking advantage of medical research and economic opportunities in this industry. It also impedes access to medicine that can heal more effectively and cheaply than traditional ones. Some advocates argue that domestic cultivation could generate employment for locals but warn for the danger of exploitation.
The CARICOM report advises member states to be aware of tensions between small local farmers and large enterprises, including foreign companies. According to this report, small, landless farmers must be included in the development of land lease and licensing strategies.
The Jamaican government has taken this advice by heart. To help raise communities out of poverty and promote sustainable development, it is working with unlicensed farmers to help them transition into the regulated market, rather than punishing them for growing underground weed. This program focuses on community groups. Aside from safeguarding the authority and future development interests, the Commission suggests that industry development in the Caribbean should be based on innovation and not unduly rely on the provision of raw products.
Such a concern is shared by nations throughout the Americas. In Colombia, lawmakers solidified the country’s role in the global market by making a medical cannabis law that forces foreign companies to manufacture and innovate within its borders. With this, they ensured that Colombia would not be reduced to solely exporting the raw material. The CARICOM report suggests similar measures, warning that the ‘liberalization and legal reform of marijuana cannot be undertaken in an ad hoc way, without a proper appreciation of the deep historical inequalities between CARICOM states, as a group of underdeveloped, often exploited nation-states, and companies from large, powerful nations interested in marijuana as an industry.’
The report states that while multinational corporations can provide significant capital investments, they have a tendency to limit the transfer of knowledge and technology in areas relating to production, processing, and research and development. Caribbean governments can make sure that policies encouraging such transfers are included in agreements with multinational corporations. Given the unique strains of cannabis in the region, the report encourages officials to craft legislation that offer protection of seeds and strains through intellectual property mechanisms. According to the report, CARICOM must avoid the unequal patterns that were experienced in other trade arrangements and learn lessons from historical experiences with other crops and indigenous services. These include sugar, cocoa, bananas, offshore finance, even tourism. They existed within predatory relationships and too little returns for CARICOM peoples. The CARICOM concerns also account for the industry development in Curaçao.
A large part of the foreign interest for this industry in the Caribbean is coming from Canada. Since the amendment of its laws in 2015, Jamaica has seen an influx of Canadian influence. In September 2018, Timeless Herbal Care became the first Jamaican company to legally export cannabis even though the cannabis Licensing Authority had not finalized its export-import framework. With the help of the Jamaican government, Timeless negotiated with Health Canada to export cannabis oil for an analysis of its chemical profile. The process involved acquiring an import permit from Health Canada, along with an export permit from Jamaica’s Ministry of Health.
The Canadian-based Jamaica Medical Cannabis Corporation Ltd. (JMCC) signed an agreement to invest $2 million over a span of ten years, to catalog and preserve the island’s native cannabis varieties. The farmers will not be compensated for providing their heritage strains and are expected to share them with Jamaica’s National Foundation for the Development of Science and Technology.
The JMCC has announced contracts to provide Jamaican cannabis to three Canadian limited partnerships, as well as letters of intent to supply seven more, all pending approval from Health Canada. Wiisag, a Canadian Indigenous cannabis company, last year announced a partnership with Jamaica’s Westmoreland Hemp and Ganja Farmers Association. According to Wiisag it will offer funding, services, and management for the association’s ten-acre pilot project to grow medical cannabis. Another company is Jacana, which has ties with the UK and Canada. Founded in 2017, the company has established a 100-acre farm in the largest parish in Jamaica.
This company focuses on medical markets in the beginning but might enter the adult-use market later on.
Mota Ventures Corp, a Vancouver company which aims to become a low-cost producer and exporter of cannabis products globally, signed a letter of intent to acquire Jamaican cannabis grower and extractor Tropical Verde Coast Ltd. With this acquisition it will indirectly hold a 49% stake in Tropical Verde, which has license to produce cannabis for medicinal purposes in Jamaica.
The Canadian Tree of Knowledge International Corp, which trades under the name TOKI, will be the first company to be cross-listed between the Canadian Securities Exchange (CSE) and the Jamaica Stock Exchange (JSE). TOKI, which already trades on the CSE, will be added to the JSE trading platform having passed all the regulatory hurdles for listing. It will become the first company to be cross listed on the Jamaica and Canada stock exchanges and the first medical cannabis company to be listed on the JSE. With this move the company hopes to appeal to the Jamaican diaspora who may be looking for ways to invest in Jamaica.
The company is expected to open its own medical cannabis clinic in Jamaica. In 2018, a group from Canada advised Antigua and Barbuda on draft legislation involving adult use and medical cannabis. The country’s officials met with the group to learn about the steps required by the government to make possible the growing, harvesting, processing, and sale of medical cannabis. Bermuda’s government is discussing possibilities with the Canadian Canopy Growth Corporation after it has announced that it will set up a regime for the domestic production of medical cannabis. Curaçao doesn’t stay behind in this development. 15 international companies have already approached the Government with project proposals in the medicinal cannabis industry.