Jamaica may be a beautiful country with picturesque beaches, lush jungles, and a rich and celebrated cultural heritage, but what it’s best known for — other than perhaps Bob Marley and reggae music — is ganja. And even those are intricately intertwined: cannabis is considered a sacrament in Rastafarianism and plays a huge role in Jamaican culture, music, religion, and, of course, tourism. But until recently, tourists flocking to Jamaica who wanted to partake of the sacred herb had to risk illegal interactions and predatory drug runners looking to capitalize on foreigners.
But the Jamaican government is starting to accept the reality of cannabis culture within its borders. In 2015, Jamaica joined the growing list of countries that decriminalized possession of small amounts of cannabis, and an announcement late last month by Jamaica’s Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA) unveiled their plans to install marijuana-dispensing vending machines in airports that will allow tourists to acquire up to 2 ounces of cannabis before they even set foot outside of the airport. This move, which would have been unthinkable ten years ago, is now a no-brainer, with overwhelming evidence showing the safety and health benefits of cannabis, the endemic social harm of keeping cannabis illegal, and, perhaps most importantly, the massive economic payday that results from state regulation and sales of cannabis.
Therapeutic and Social Benefits, But Money Talks Loudest
As CLA Chair Hyacinth Lightbourne explained, these kiosks, which could be up and running in as little as a month, would officially be available for people who already have a medical marijuana license, but that it would be fairly easy for non-card-carriers to get a temporary permit:
“[The kiosks] would primarily be for people who have a prescription and, in effect, you’re doing it for medicinal purposes with a permit from the Ministry of Health. If they don’t have a prescription, then they can do what we call ‘self-declare’, and this will allow them to have the two ounces while they are here.”
While Lightbourne explained that this initiative shows a great step toward the accepted therapeutic use of cannabis in Jamaica, CLA member Delano Seiveright explained what is perhaps the most important point in this story: that the permit dispensers would provide a needed stream of revenue in Jamaica as it’s done in places like Colorado and Canada.
State legalization, particularly in Colorado where recreational use is now legal, has shown the world the profound economic windfall that comes through taxing cannabis sales. While Jamaica’s population at 2.7 million is about half of Colorado’s 5.3 million, Jamaica could reasonably expect to see upwards of $50 million in cannabis tax revenue per year after Colorado’s cannabis tax revenue in 2015 crested $125 million.
Besides providing an alternative source of revenue, Jamaica’s marijuana reform over the last year will also help to alleviate another big problem in the country: high incarceration rates for the possession of marijuana. Jamaica is no exception to the failures of the War on Drugs, and no-tolerance drug laws have created high incarceration rates, health risks, and a thriving black market for illicit substances. For Jamaica specifically, the criminalization of cannabis contradicts the culture’s deep cultural and religious appreciation of cannabis, and this has resulted in a heavy social toll — untold numbers of Jamaicans, particularly youth, have been caught up in the legal system with criminal records, jail time, and lives that have been turned upside down for enjoying a safe and widely available flowering plant.
While officials involved in drug policy have known about these factors for a long time, the two factors that seem to be tipping the scales towards drug reform are the evolution of public opinion and the tangible examples of immense tax revenues surrounding cannabis legalization and regulation. Scientific studies have shown the safety of cannabis consumption, and far fewer people across the world believe the anti-marijuana propaganda that once dominated public discourse surrounding the plant. The political climate surrounding marijuana legalization has also shifted immensely in recent years as the world’s most ardent defender of zero-tolerance drug laws, the United States, is witnessing the economic benefits of the growing wave of state legalization for medical and recreational marijuana use.
Everything’s Gonna Be Alright
While it would have been great if the social costs of keeping marijuana illegal inspired this change much sooner, Jamaica’s kiosk initiative is still a great step forward for harm reduction and drug policy reform advocates. Tourists can now be open about their intentions to enjoy cannabis during a trip to Jamaica, and they will have an infinitely easier and safer time acquiring and enjoying the sacred herb. We have every reason to believe that Jamaica is just the most recent domino to fall in a worldwide movement of drug policy reform surrounding cannabis and other psychedelic substances that embraces the lessons of harm reduction and reaps the many social and economic benefits of data-driven drug policies.