Free Up the Herb – On Herbs and Hypocrisy in the Commonwealth Caribbean
:: by Richie Maitland ::
Ganja has been in the headlines a lot lately in the Caribbean. Most recently in early June 2014, the Jamaican government announced plans to decriminalise personal possession of up to 2 ounces of ganja by September 2014 – a decision supported by the Drug Abuse Council (1). In May 2014, video emerged of a man who appeared to be the sports Minister of Trinidad and Tobago Anil Roberts smoking what appeared to be ganja (2). On April 20th 2014 – 4/20, ganja smokers in the Caribbean (the brave and less vulnerable ones), posted odes to weed. The braver and even less vulnerable ones posted images of themselves holding extra large size spliffs, fat buds, bongs, joints with bellies (hashtag novices), bashies with scissors cut weed and ganja paraphernalia. Others dare not risk the wrath of parents, employers (even potential ones), or society. The Caribbean reality is that the place small, people can be quite judgmental and parents can be quite brutal (trust me I know).
Anyways, days like 4/20, I picture smoke signals rising above those islands, like the husky smoke that rises from the open mouths of milk tins, converted to pots on three stone firesides. I picture the smoke signals rising, forming genie like smoke men in the Caribbean sky, arguing with each other about who has ‘the hardest’.
4/20 celebrations illustrate some ways cultural imperialism and geopolitics operate; mediated, replicated and perpetuated through virtual space and social media. We’re in the Caribbean celebrating 4/20, in the same way we’re beginning to celebrate thanksgiving – on social media, but also in real life, (roasting turkeys or roasting joints). Cultural significances are being pushed into our lives and the stronger party wins the pushing match. Culture entrenches modes of thought, modes of thought entrench systems and systems…systems entrench advantage and disadvantage, though 4/20 celebrations are relatively benign.
But I not here to talk about geopolitics but about ganja, though ganja and geo politics intersect so much that talking about geopolitics is inevitable when talking about the international herb.
Ganja is now decriminalised in about 25 countries worldwide, including parts of the US, Canada, Australia and Uruguay which has fully legalised its possession, sale and distribution. Regionally, the bill to decriminalise ganja has already been approved by the Jamaican House of Representatives and the Hon. Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines has shown leadership on starting the decriminalisation conversation. In late 2013, he wrote to CARICOM chair, the Hon. Kamla Persad Bissessar, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, inviting CARICOM to address the issue (3); he himself has been raising the issue in different CARICOM platforms. Policy and law makers regionally and worldwide are realising more and more that the costs of ganja prohibition far outweigh the benefits, as concluded by the Jamaican National Ganja Commission in their report 13 years ago. But not everyone likes this wind of change and how it smells.
“Government’s position on this issue is very clear. The cultivation and use of marijuana in Grenada is illegal, and therefore, we will abide by the Laws of our Land.” (4) Words of Grenada’s Minister of Education and Human Resource Development, the Hon. Anthony Boatswain. He saw it fit to enlighten us, though I don’t think anybody thinks otherwise. Of course the law being what it is, the government can change it, as they often do; his remark reflects a wider symbolic stance against ganja use.
The Minister was speaking at a meeting of the Grenada Drug Epidemiology Network and National Observatory on Drugs (GRENDEN-NOD) in January 2014 and sending a message to decriminalisation movements in Grenada. He justified the government of Grenada’s position by referring to statistics on drug-related admissions to the Mt. Gay Psychiatric Hospital and by saying that the families of psychiatric patients and the state of Grenada were saddled with the responsibility of caring for these patients. To paraphrase, the argument went – ‘some people who smoke ganja go crazy, and when they do, other people and the state have to care for them’. I decided to look at the statistics myself.
People who have drug related mental and physical health problems interact with the General Hospital, Rathdune (the General Hospital’s psychiatric unit), the Mt.Gay Psychiatric institute and the Carlton home. The referenced data is drawn from those institutions. The other institutions drug users interact with on account of drug use are the courts and the prisons.
Between January 2006- June 2013 in the institutions mentioned above, of the complications treated, 37 Carlton home cases were for ganja related issues, compared to 60 for alcohol; 452 Rathdune cases were ganja related, compared to 530 for alcohol; 33 General Hospital cases were ganja related compared to 1126 for alcohol. Many of the cases over this 7 year period were recurrent ie. the same people were readmitted and therefore reflected multiple times in the data.
The statistics show that alcohol is a much bigger public (including mental) health threat than ganja. If global statistics are any indication, cigarettes are also a much bigger public health threat than ganja. Yet, rightfully in my view, alcohol and cigarettes are legal. Policy makers understand, in relation to these drugs, that adults should be able to enjoy their substances and that most adults do so in ways that aren’t problematic to themselves, their families and societies. The hypocrisy comes in the fact that ganja is never given the benefit of those arguments although they apply even more strongly for ganja.
Drug related habits pervade society at every level, but we are socialised into attaching particularly negative associations with some habits; partly because of criminalisation. Grenadian Sociologist Claude Douglas says:
“The stereotypical views held about alcohol and marijuana has a more profound influence on their use and abuse. Because of its legal status and social character of its consumption, alcohol is not considered a drug by most of its consumers and even by stakeholders who invariably use the phrase “alcohol and drugs.”(5)
We also understand the friend who proudly proclaims their addiction to coffee; who ‘needs’ coffee to start their day; who takes great care to ensure a constant availability of coffee and who is queen B (not Beyonce) when they can’t get it. Same for our friends who smoke cigarettes. If a ganja user behaves similarly, that person has a ‘drug problem’. We are quick to point out how much money our weed smoking friends spend on ganja, never mind the expensive Starbucks dark roast we always trying to buy duty free, never mind that we have a percolator home and at the office, never mind the weekly investment in filters, cream and milk. Most of the people we know who use alcohol, coffee and cigarettes don’t have drug ‘problems’, they have drug habits (which cost money). It is the same with ganja smokers.
Some people think ganja smokers are lazy, unmotivated stoners who do nothing but sleep and raid their mothers’ kitchens, beating tracks between the bed and the fridge. Others associate ganja with criminality and decadence – their daughter dare not bring home a ganja smoker, and if she does bring one home they’ll check to make sure he didn’t ‘tief’ anything after they kick them out. Poor them for not knowing their doctor and architect smoke ganja too. The sad reality is that many ganja smokers remain closeted in the Caribbean. Those who know – know, but people rather avoid the stigma and criminality that smoking ganja carries in most circles. The productive, ‘normal’ people who smoke ganja pretend they don’t and so only the other kinds of ganja smokers are visible. This is probably why this lazy-man stereotype is hard to shake.
Some people call Ganja a gateway drug. I’m pretty sure that most, if not all, of the people who smoke ganja, smoked cigarettes and/or drank alcohol prior to smoking ganja. Are cigarettes and alcohol then the true gateway drugs? Why does the buck stop with ganja? People who are open to trying ganja are more likely to be open to trying other drugs than people who don’t do any drugs; the same is true for alcohol and cigarettes. This does not necessarily make marijuana, alcohol or cigarettes ‘gateway drugs’, a concept which implies that someone would not have used a perceived worse drug, but for the use of the alcohol, cigarettes or ganja.
People have fronted Grenada’s international obligations, suggesting that decriminalising would breach drug prohibition treaties that Grenada has signed. You know what other countries also have similar international obligations in relation to drug prohibition? The USA, Canada, Switzerland all of which have decriminalised to some extent, nationally or municipally, possession of small amounts of ganja. You know what other international obligation Grenada has? An obligation to respect and affirm the equality of LGBTI people – that government doesn’t give a shit about. Governments hide behind international obligations as pretexts when they want to avoid inconvenient action while disregarding other obligations with impunity. Emphasizing international obligations is therefore a weak argument against decriminalisation.
But to address the substance rather than the hypocrisy of the argument, this issue has actually been determined by Caribbean international law expert – Professor Stephen Vascianne (6) from Jamaica. Grenada and most of the rest of the Caribbean share the same drug prohibition international obligations as Jamaica. Vascianne concluded in a 2001 paper (7) that it was possible to decriminalise personal ganja use in Jamaica without being in breach of international obligations, once cultivation and distribution of ganja remained illegal.
I venture to say that a third of Grenada smokes ganja from time to time. This is not such a grand figure when you consider that a study done in 2006 among people aged 15-35 in the villages of Woburn, Grenville and Gouyave, show ganja usage at 70%. (8) After horning, smoking weed is the second biggest open secret in the Caribbean; our second biggest horn child. Not everyone will be in on the secret because people fear repercussions. Yet, politicians who presumably know the scene quite well continue this performance of piety; ask the man who look like Min. Anil Roberts.
I applaud the National United Front and attorney-at-law Anselm Clouden in Grenada, for starting public conversations about ganja decriminalisation in Grenada at a panel discussion in December 2013.
Ganja possession is a victimless crime; one I’ve seen people convicted and fined for – repeat offenders risking prison. I know how much time, administrative resources and personal time the criminal process swallows and how disruptive it can be; how drug related convictions stain the lives of good, productive people; how marijuana can be useful; how pointless criminalising small amounts of marijuana is.
The danger and ineffectiveness of strict prohibition regimes has gained international attention. Ban Ki-moon, The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in June 2014 (9):
“National laws that stigmatize and marginalize drug users also need to be addressed. Known drug use or convictions for even minor use of drugs may deprive a person of a range of parental rights, including custody, as well as other legal rights, and may unalterably modify future opportunities, including employment. In some States, ethnic minorities and marginalized groups living in poverty are disproportionately targeted by drug enforcement efforts.”
I urge all States to reconsider from a human rights perspective the decades-old approach to drug control based on repression. A number of States no longer incarcerate persons for minor drug offences, and some have de-criminalized minor drug offences. It is also possible, and consistent with current international drug control treaties, to re-frame some drug-related conduct as administrative offences, followed with a social and medical response.”
In a 2003 Grenada assessment on marijuana use and youth behaviour “[t]he majority of respondents from all groups excluding River Road dismissed the notion that marijuana encourages young people in crime. In fact, most respondents from Tivoli and Gouyave asserted that on the contrary marijuana instills a new consciousness in the individual, thus promoting positive attitudes and behaviours.” (10)
One female respondent in that assessment says:
“I was a wild child on the street and ah use to smoke more cigarettes, now I smoking more weed. Before them time I did not use to check up on me life but now as ah smoking and thing, I think a lot of things, and is like ah overs (understand) me life because ah smoking marijuana, now I get a meditation to change me life because ah seeing certain things and it change me a lot, so I could say it (marijuana) change me in a good way.”
In 2012 I was talking to a client, a mother whose son I was representing in a legal matter. Because we were both from Petite Martinique, she asked me to talk to her son who was a few years younger than me and encourage him to change some of his ways. I asked her what ways; she said she wanted him to stop smoking ganja. I asked her how she knew he smokes. She said that she could just tell – his eyes look funny, he gets a lot calmer, he doesn’t ‘get on’ with her when she talks to him, he smiles and does whatever she asks him to do around the house, talks to her nicely and just wants to stay home. My head voice asked ‘why the hell you want him stop smoking weed then?’ In her mind, she’d rather have a rude, aggressive, unhelpful, absent son than a ganja smoking son.
I have friends & acquaintances who struggle with being psychologically dependent on ganja and with quitting; I’m not giving ganja an easy pass. But they are a very small percentage compared to my friends & acquaintances who are struggling with being physically and psychologically addicted to alcohol and cigarettes and who struggle even worse.
It is also probably true that children will have more access to ganja if it is decriminalised, but, certainly still less than they have access to alcohol and tobacco.
The responsibility is on parents to provide meaningful information to their children and to protect them from what they consider harmful substances. The responsibility is on adults to not sell or give drugs to minors. The responsibility is on the state to criminalise adults who do. This is the approach taken in relation to alcohol and cigarettes and should be the approach taken in relation to ganja. It is the approach that strikes the best balance between protecting children from the potentially harmful effects of substances and allowing adults the right to make their own decisions about what to put into their bodies.
We have the data, the arguments and the examples of other countries that have decriminalised. Will we dare to be progressive?
I say, free up the herb.
Richie Maitland is a Grenadian attorney and activist. He is a graduate of the Presentation Brothers College and T.A. Marryshow Community College. He earned his Bachelor of Laws Degree at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill, Barbados in 2010. Richie is a member of the Hugh Wooding Law School class of 2012 and is currently working as an attorney-at-law in Grenada.