In Part I of this story, we outline the history and progress of the cannabis reform movement sweeping through the Caribbean, and the vision of leaders who want to make sure a rising industry becomes an engine for social justice and local jobs and not just foreign-company profits. In Part II we examine signs of how those efforts are going so far.
Even as they push for cannabis law reform, Caribbean policymakers also worry about getting out too far ahead of the rest of the world.
In addition to concerns about foreign companies that, in the wake of legal reform, could come to dominate and exploit a rising local industry, the CARICOM Commission identified international drug treaties as another point of concern—one that is shared by Caribbean nations that have already enacted, or are contemplating, cannabis reform.
Under these treaties, drugs are arranged in lists according to their perceived level of harm, and, though there have been calls to change its status, cannabis continues to be deemed on these lists as one of the most dangerous, with the least medical value. The lists directly impact international laws and regulations and shape policy at the national level. In the eyes of the CARICOM Commission, the status of cannabis in the international arena poses a “significant obstacle” to the development of a Caribbean cannabis industry.
Countries that act unilaterally, the report noted, can be subject to sanctions. In light of the international drug conventions, governed by the UN, the Commission instructs Caribbean heads of government to “be cognisant of the inherent power imbalances between member states and other states,” adding that “The fact that the US has de facto legalised marijuana in many states and has gotten away without being deemed to be in conflict with international conventions in the name of legal flexibility, is of little comfort.”
Still, though the commission posits international drug conventions as a challenge to cannabis law reform, it does not deem them insurmountable. The drug treaties, it noted, “derive their authority from consensus in the international sphere.” Therefore, “the fact that so many countries, including important allies like Canada, have deviated from them, undermines their authority.”
These treaties, it continued, “now provide weak opposition to restrict change and are themselves in transition. Consequently, CARICOM should not consider itself bound by these obsolete, obstructive treaty obligations, but should work with allies such as Canada, Uruguay, and other Latin American states, to modify them.”
To lobby for change to the international regime, the commission calls for a unified approach in the Caribbean.
“The long history and cultural significance of cannabis in the region,” the report said, “makes CARICOM a potentially authoritative player in this process, but only if it proceeds as a powerful, unified, regional bloc of states.”
What About the Locals?
Meanwhile, as legal reform proceeds despite some international caution signs, and as a new cannabis industry begins to rise in the Caribbean in its wake, who will benefit? It may be too soon to answer the question, but there are some signs.
A month before meeting last year with Bruce Linton, then CEO of Canopy Growth, David Burt, Bermuda’s youngest-ever premier, pledged that the domestic cultivation of medical cannabis would be legalized within months. During a keynote address at the Progressive Labour Party’s annual conference, the Premier called for a business model in which “good corporate citizens who hire, train, and promote Bermudians are rewarded with a more streamlined process.”
Then, speaking specifically about cannabis, Burt noted a significant contradiction: “Though the government has allowed doctors to prescribe medicinal cannabis, there is currently no way to import it, as Bermuda is only allowed to legally import one gram of cannabis for medicinal purposes per year.” At the conference, he paused while the audience chuckled at the discrepancy.
The government could ask the United Nations to raise the import limit, Burt continued, “But our thinking is: In a country that is desperate for jobs, why would we send that money overseas to import what we can grow here?”
Once domestic cultivation is established, he said, the government will prioritize licensing for Bermudians “who’ve been denied the opportunity to travel, been restricted in overseas education choices, and blocked from some form of employment due to convictions for cannabis possession.”
“It makes no sense,” he concluded, “to create wealth that will only increase economic inequality.”
Kyjuan Brown, director of the North Shore Medical and Aesthetics Center in Devonshire, is one of just a few doctors licensed to prescribe cannabis in Bermuda, a territory with a population of roughly 65,000 people. In an interview with Cannabis Wire, Brown said that while he understands that domestic cannabis cultivation “is not something that can be done as a hasty undertaking,” he has patients who suffer from seizures, and who need access to medical cannabis now. Premier Burt, he added, set forth an ambitious plan, but it’ll take time before cultivation is legalized, and even more before there is a yield.
Cannabis and the Farmers
That yield will depend on farmers. And It remains to be seen how cannabis policy reform in Bermuda and across the Caribbean will shape the lives of small-scale farmers.
In Jamaica, the government partnered with Harvard University to research and develop strains of medical cannabis expected to “transform and diversify” the national economy. The agreement, said Audley Shaw, Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture, and Fisheries, will include protections for local intellectual property rights, including that of agronomists and traditional herbalists. Barbados is also working through plans to cap foreign investment and require local investment, as well as to grant land to local farmers and members of the Rastafarian community.
In 2018, when the Parliament of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines approved legislation to create a legal medical cannabis industry, it also provided growers an opportunity to surrender their illicit crops in exchange for a cultivation license.
During the 62nd session of the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs in March, where member states decided to postpone a vote to reschedule cannabis and its derivatives, a representative from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines provided a statement, which refers to cannabis reforms taking place as “important and historic.” However, the president of the nation’s Cannabis Revival Committee, an advocacy group, Junior “Spirit” Cottle, underscored that the group will continue defending growers from “unscrupulous investors and their agents” who, among other things, had attempted to “force growers into accepting a paltry of US$50 per pound for cannabis.”
“We will continue to call for change,” he added, “keeping the interests of our traditional growers in mind, until full legalization is achieved.”
At the event, Jamaica’s Cannabis Licensing Authority, which launched its Alternative Development Program to help “traditional ganja farmers transition away from the dependence on the illicit drugs market,” showed a video in which Prime Minister Andrew Holness explains that the program is meant to ensure that small-scale farmers are able to partake in the industry.
“It is our fear that, as the industry becomes more corporatized, that the original ganja man, the original farmer, could be very well left out of the gains and the benefits, when you were the ones singing the praises and know the benefits,” says Holness. This concern, he explained, prompted him to call the Minister of Agriculture and ask him to commit to the program.
Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, who chairs the CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana, was also present, and criticized the region’s focus on medical cannabis at the expense of criminal justice reform and developing a fully-regulated industry. She noted that Saint Vincent and the Grenadines “started off with a wide agenda of reform and once the companies started to come in, they said: ‘Okay, let’s just do medical marijuana.’”
“The buzz today,” she added, “almost overnight it seems, is the medical marijuana industry. While this, on the surface, appears to be a positive development, this new phenomenon presents a clear and present danger to the rights and aspirations of ordinary people worldwide and it can hijack, if you’re not careful, the international call for law reform and threaten, undermine, and even reverse the important gains made in the cannabis debate.”
Permitting the medical use of cannabis in the Caribbean, Antoine concluded, “is a necessary, but not a sufficient, first step in the long walk to justice.”