How Jamaica’s Medical Cannabis Market Abandons Traditional Farmers

    The landscape of Jamaica’s medical cannabis industry may be shifting. After a Canadian company recently exported cannabis into Jamaica—undercutting the already-limited local market, while still not allowing Jamaica to export its own products into Canada—“uproar from local ganja farmers” compelled legislators to make promises of long-overdue regulatory reform, according to the Jamaica Observer. We will see whether those promises are kept.

    Ganja is deeply rooted in Jamaica’s history and culture, but it is not legal. The country legalized medical cannabis and decriminalized possession under 2 ounces in 2015, after more than a century of prohibition that saw the plant weaponized to silence and disenfranchise dissenters. The 2015 Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act still left it to police discretion to decide whether or not to fine those found in possession of under 2 ounces.

    I was working in Jamaica in 2015. Shortly after the new legislation was enacted, I read in a local newspaper about medical cannabis partnerships with the United States. The article was full of promises about how the enterprise would benefit Jamaican society, creating job opportunities and re-investing profits in the country’s education and research sectors.

    I showed it to an elderly Rastafarian friend who’d been incarcerated on cannabis distribution charges in the 1980s. He was not moved by the prospect of lucrative deals between wealthy CEOs and other wealthy CEOs. Who would be getting the grow permits? Not he, who considered ganja a sacrament for his body and soul and spent years locked behind bars for it. Someone else would be allowed into this new market to profit off his work.

    Reparations is not broached in these discussions; the subject is too fraught.

    In the eight years since, the Jamaican government has invested heavily in its medical cannabis industry while leaving Rastafarian and other traditional ganja farmers behind. The Cannabis Licensing Authority has made gestures toward lowering barriers to local farmers entering the industry, but has yet to actually do so.

    Reparations is not broached in discussions of cannabis regulation; the subject has been too fraught in the context of the government paying reparations to survivors of the 1963 Coral Garden Massacre, and thus legislators avoid mentioning it. Policies that should include social equity provisions are in fact creating a new landscape of inequality, as legacy farmers are cut out of the market.

    The regulations for farming medical cannabis are strict and onerous, and cultivation for non-medical, non-scientific use remains criminalized. The only other place growers can turn is to the religious market, which is small and not particularly profitable.

    Commercial regulation models that include social equity provisions, like those being implemented in New York, may have their faults; but in Jamaica such provisions have yet to appear at all. Ganja farmers need legislation that creates opportunities for those subjected to criminalization in the past, and makes bank loans accessible to ease the cost burden of turning their traditional work into a licensed business.

    US partners subject Jamaican banks to onerous regulations they claim are necessary precautions against money laundering and funding terrorist activity.

    Jamaican banks have long relied on partnerships with federally regulated US banks. Those US partners, in their obsession with stamping out so-called “drug trafficking,” subject Jamaican banks to onerous regulations that they claim are necessary precautions against money laundering and funding terrorist activity.

    Traditional farmers do not have the resources to navigate the process of getting a loan, which means their only option is to partner with foreign investors. This can bring them certain benefits—access to larger export markets and established infrastructure—but often leaves them vulnerable to exploitative terms from predatory investors. It also allows foreign partners to insist on the cultivation of non-Jamaican cannabis, threatening the preservation of local strains. 

    At whatever point the US legalizes cannabis at the federal level, Jamaica will likely follow. As the Jamaican government navigates the evolving regulatory landscape, it is imperative that it work in collaboration with traditional farmers. Only then will any equity provisions actually be successful in practice. Without such measures, Jamaica’s ganja—and its custodians—will continue to be gentrified by tourists and foreign entrepreneurs.



    Photograph of Jamaican ganja farm via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Felipe is a Brazilian anthropologist. He’s a criminology lecturer at the University of Manchester, where he researches drug policy, state violence, structural racism and reparations for historical inequalities. He lives in London.

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