Jamaica's justice minister said Tuesday that legislation has been drafted to decriminalize marijuana on the Caribbean island where the drug has been pervasive but prohibited for a century.
Mark Golding told reporters that lawmakers should make possession of 2 ounces or less a petty offense before the end of 2014. He also expects decriminalization for religious purposes to be authorized by then, allowing adherents of the homegrown Rastafarian spiritual movement to ritually smoke marijuana, which they consider a "holy herb," without fear of arrest.
Golding said it will take longer to agree on more complex changes to Jamaica's Dangerous Drugs Act needed to spur a medical marijuana and cannabis research sector. He said Jamaica, where scientists developed a cannabis-derived medication to treat glaucoma decades ago, is "well-positioned to be a forerunner" in efforts to research therapeutic uses of the plant.
As Jamaica advances marijuana decriminalization, the government is committed to battling drug traffickers, Golding stressed. He said keeping marijuana away from children, the international black market and organized crime will be a top priority.
Previous efforts to decriminalize marijuana, or "ganja" as it is largely known in Jamaica, failed to advance because Jamaican officials feared they would violate international treaties and bring sanctions from Washington. But those concerns have eased now that a number of nations and some U.S. states have relaxed marijuana laws.
Golding said the regulatory framework needed for a medical marijuana and research industry in Jamaica is still being hashed over. Setting maximum limits on pot cultivation is not anticipated, he said, but the government wants to ensure that small farmers "are not excluded and it does not just become something exclusively for major capital-intensive investors."
Ethan Nadelmann, head of the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, a pro-legalization group based in New York, called Golding's announcement a "significant step forward."
It's "both noteworthy in that Jamaica is reforming policies on possession, religious use and medical use at more or less the same time, and politically important in providing leadership in the Caribbean," he said.
A recent preliminary report by the Caribbean Community of 15 nations and territories said medical marijuana could help boost the region's economy.