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A Turning Tide and Shifting Sands: A Caribbean Voice in the Drug Reform Debate at Last?

The Caribbean may be about to wake up to the fact that they have been missing the boat on a major new trend in their region u2013 the rejection of failed U.S.-led anti-drug policies.

The Caribbean may be about to wake up to the fact that they have been missing the boat on a major new trend in their region – the rejection of failed US-led anti-drug policies. So often lumped with South America in the “Latin America and the Caribbean” (LAC) grouping, the Caribbean has been in many respects, including this one – the debate surrounding what policies to pursue with respect to drugs, and marijuana in particular – clearly out of step with its counterparts.

This post began its life as an article about the Caribbean’s silence on the question of drug policy reform, in contrast to their Latin American neighbors’ more outspoken approach – a silence which is all the more surprising since the Caribbean continues to suffer greatly from the legacy of drug prohibition and its side effects, and as long as drugs are illegal, stands to become a more popular route for drug flows at any time that enforcement efforts in other places encourage traffickers to move their drugs through other routes, with all the attendant symptoms of a rise in drug trafficking for other social ills.

The region has already experienced an explosion of violent crime in recent years, and projections show that almost double the drugs were trafficked through the region in 2012 than in 2011, as cartels seeking to avoid a clampdown elsewhere take advantage of the region’s economic problems to re-establish the islands as a route into the US.

While we have heard former and current Presidents across Central and South America suggest the need for alternative approaches, Caribbean governments have been remarkably quiet.

This, unfortunately, fits well with their general disposition in recent times – supine in contrast to the outspoken and defiant nationalism of their South American neighbors. Where, for example, we have seen many governments in South America “turning to the left” to seek to address inequality and achieve greater independence from the U.S., Caribbean governments have become in many respects increasingly dependent.

Yet it seems there are the first signs that the Caribbean may be about to wake up and smell the herb with which some of its islands are so firmly associated, through their music, culture, and religion.

In a September 10th letter to the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Chair, Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, has called for a discussion on the medicinal and other uses of marijuana.

Gonsalves, a well-established figure in the Caribbean community having been Prime Minister for over a decade, specifically called for a “reasoned debate” on the possible legalization of marijuana, and suggested the issue should be discussed at the next CARICOM leaders’ meeting, which took place on September 13th.

I would argue that Caribbean reticence on the issue of legalization to date comes down to two main challenges: The fact that the region has increasingly been engulfed in a “high debt, low growth” trap, in which countries like Jamaica are facing levels of indebtedness higher than some of the most afflicted European states; and the region’s greater dependency on the US.

The first point is relevant because it has arguably seen government policymaking brainpower consumed with economic fire-fighting, rather than considering innovative new approaches to…well, anything. The second point is important because it speaks to the anxiety that the islands may upset a country where the vast majority, or significant proportions, of their tourists, imports, and in some cases, financial assistance, come from; the Caribbean continues to have within its midst an example of a country – Cuba – which is today paying a heavy price for defying the US politically.

But the islands do have less and less reason to be fearful of reprisal for considering alternative approaches: while their economies may depend to a great extent on the US, the US itself has reached a turning point in the war on drugs. First, with the legalization of marijuana in the states of Colorado and Washington (following its legalization for medicinal uses earlier in these and other states), but more importantly, with the US federal government decided that it would not protest Colorado and Washington’s decision to legalize and regulate the drug within their borders.

With this historic decision, the US has put itself in full contravention of the very laws it has vigorously sought to ensure are enforced in other countries with respect to drug use and sales, with huge costs for those therein. And in doing so, it weakens international will to uphold those laws – particularly in countries such as Mexico where there has been a heavy human cost and political price for doing so.

Last year as a member of the University of Denver’s Latin American Studies Association, I was lucky enough to host a member of the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. The board member essentially told an audience at that time that if the US determines it would not protest the move by Colorado, it would be extremely hard for the UN board to continue to press for global drug prohibition based on a regime that was essentially created by the US, when they now flout it themselves by allowing legal recreational drug use within at least some of their states.

South America has already taken advantage of US equivocation – Uruguay has changed its policy, and other countries may be set to follow.

So why would The Bahamas, my home, continue to give young men criminal records for possession of marijuana – criminal records which can scupper their chances of gaining employment for the rest of their lives, and of traveling to the US itself for further education, business, or otherwise, by making them ineligible to gain a US visa, for doing something which is now legal in the US? Why would we strain our resources to chase down drug traffickers harboring pot, and to house them in our jails?

Why should a decision by entrepreneurial Jamaicans to run Ganja Tours, introducing visiting weed connoisseurs to their finest strains — just as wine lovers can enjoy the various types of vino in Napa — be illegal? How absurd that an American tourist could come from a state where weed is fully legal to Jamaica, the cultural home of marijuana if ever there was one, only to find it is illegal there. Jamaica for one could use all the help it can get right now to diversify its economy and lift itself out of its severe indebtedness, weed-related or not.

Brian Vicente, a University of Denver law graduate, drug reform proponent, and one of the architects of the marijuana laws in Colorado, sees change on the horizon for the Caribbean. “Although these discussions are growing loudest in Central and South America,” he told me,

they are still occurring in the Caribbean and I believe that we will see similar high level discussions between presidents and policy makers in the region very soon. Jamaica’s Ganja Law Reform Coalition will host an international conference in Kingston later this month and Jamaican newspapers are coming out in favor of decriminalization. In addition, Puerto Rican lawmakers are currently discussing medical marijuana regulations in the territory. South American leaders are introducing marijuana regulations as a way to reduce violence caused by illegal black markets but in the Caribbean, at least in Jamaica, it seems the discussion focuses much more on fairness and the ability to generate tax revenue.

Legalization does not have to mean an uncontrolled free market – in Colorado and in Uruguay, the decision was to regulate it like alcohol. Far fewer deaths or incidences of violence are associated with marijuana use than alcohol, after all. While each context will have its own unique features that must be taken into account when considering the correct approach to legalization, what can be certain is that the Caribbean has nothing to lose and everything to gain from taking advantage of the shifting ground, and waning US credibility on the question of enforcement, to begin this debate.

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