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Jamaica's Pioneering Journey Towards Cannabis Regulation

14/11/2015 17:20 | Updated 13 November 2016

By respecting human rights, religious freedoms and granting access to medicine, Jamaica is now leading the world in compassionate, evidence-based drug policy.

It is wonderful that Jamaica has now not only decriminalised cannabis, eliminating previous convictions for possession, but has also fully acknowledged the religious rights of the Rastafarians, thus becoming the first state to properly recognise the religious use of cannabis.

On the global scene I think we have finally reached a tipping point. The intellectual battle against the 'War on Drugs' has, for the most part, been won. Most intelligent people realise that it is impossible to eradicate a market through prohibition. Where there is a demand, there will always be a way to fill it. Criminalisation of cannabis has caused untold suffering around the world, while its prevalence has increased dramatically since it was banned. However, that is merely the intellectual battle, the battle on the ground has only just begun, and that is where Jamaica is now leading the way.

The desire to alter consciousness is part of human nature. Altering states of consciousness has, from the very beginning, been deeply interwoven with the evolution of human society, including the creation of music, language, art, medicine, spirituality and community bonding.

By banning many of the favoured techniques of altering consciousness, the United Nations, and the governments of the world, are trespassing deeply into personal liberty and human rights. If a person is not in any way damaging anyone else by their actions, it should be their freedom to choose their preferred state of consciousness. This basic right "to the free development of personality" was recently recognised by the Supreme Court in Mexico.

There is no doubt that the 'War on Drugs' approach to the control of psychoactive substances has been a disaster, with catastrophic consequences at every level. I cannot think of another civil decision that has caused so much global suffering. Prohibition of psychoactive substances has created a vast criminal market, run by individuals, often acting with a ruthlessness which shakes the fabric of civilised society.

Prohibition leads to the drugs consumed getting ever stronger: opium, to heroin; coca, to crack-cocaine; and traditional cannabis, to high-THC skunk. The illegal market has become a cancer in society causing illness, violence, corruption, and even the destabilisation of countries and regions. It is not the drugs themselves that cause these problems, but the effects of the policies controlling them.

Prohibition further obstructs the access of 80% of the world's population to essential pain medications, access to which is a basic human right. Prohibition also obstructs scientific research into the potential benefits of cannabis and other controlled substances; medicines, that, if researched and used appropriately, could relieve immense suffering globally.

It would have been much better if these substances had remained as an integral part of the social fabric, controlled by social pressure, with the purpose of minimising harms and optimising benefits. I think it was a disaster to relegate one of the biggest industries in the world to criminal cartels, rather than for the governments of the world, with their boards of experts, working out scientifically, the safest, and most cost-effective ways of managing this human desire to alter consciousness.

As we all know, the drug laws are not based on scientific knowledge. Alcohol and tobacco, two legal methods of altering consciousness, can be extremely damaging to health and expensive to society. They would never have been permitted under current health criteria.

The legal basis of prohibition - the UN conventions - created by the USA, which surprisingly, does not feel bound to obey them itself - was not based on scientific evidence, but rather on political ideology, vested interests and prejudices. The conventions have stood like sacred scriptures, unaltered by the advances of science over the last 55 years, not a word has been changed! It is now time to update these conventions, so that individual countries can experiment with new approaches that they think would better serve the health and well-being of their citizens.

The Jamaican government must be applauded for its brave decision to go beyond mere decriminalisation of cannabis possession, and to legalise home cultivation for medicinal, spiritual and sacramental use - thereby recognising the religious rights of the Rastafari community - and to create a new licensed industry for medicinal cannabis and hemp. It is to be hoped that the new legal framework will ensure that the potential benefits to the citizens and the nation are maximised.

There are many advantages to a legal, regulated market. Criminalising users can ruin lives, fill prisons and cause immense suffering to individuals and their families. A strictly regulated market is better able to protect the youth, by not selling to minors, by labelling the products, by prohibiting advertising and by providing credible information and treatment where necessary.

Furthermore, the savings on enforcement, and money raised by taxation, can fund improved education, treatment and research. By recognising the potential medicinal value of cannabis, Jamaica opens the doors to scientific research and the freedom of doctors to prescribe cannabis for the treatment of many illnesses. It will also open the door to Jamaica becoming an island of well-being for foreign visitors, providing clinics with cannabis-assisted therapy for the treatment of many problematic conditions, such as depression, addiction, post-traumatic stress and pain. With careful management, this could become a valuable source of income and foreign exchange.

With the Jamaican government's commitment to medical research, and the expertise of the scientific community in Jamaica, research into cannabis can now flourish. The Beckley Foundation greatly looks forward to collaborating in this exciting movement, which has the potential to open up new avenues of treatment, and thereby end much suffering worldwide.

For the last 17 years I have advocated policies based on health, harm-reduction, cost-effectiveness and respect of human rights - and have simultaneously opened up scientific research into the potential medicinal and therapeutic benefits of cannabis and other traditional plants. It is therefore a delight for me to be accompanying the Jamaican people on this exciting new journey.

If Jamaica could crystallise this potential, it would not only benefit its citizens and the economy, but also enhance the position of Jamaica in the world. It would be wonderful if Jamaica's reputation at the forefront of athletics and music, could be mirrored by a reputation for leadership in the field of the regulation, and medical use, of cannabis.

Over the years, the Beckley Foundation and I have worked in collaboration with leading academic institutions around the world, undertaking scientific research and clinical studies into the beneficial effects of cannabis. We are now looking forward to working with Jamaican universities, and Rastafari communities to cultivate and undertake scientific research on different strains of cannabis. We will particularly focus on strains that have a therapeutic balance of THC, CBD and other cannabinoids and terpenes, in order to optimise the pain-relieving qualities and other medicinal applications, such as the treatment of cancer and overcoming addiction. The Foundation is currently working with University College London to compare the effects of different strains of cannabis with varying THC/CBD ratios, using brain-imaging technology.

I also look forward to focussing on Jamaica's landrace strains, which have become almost extinct in today's cannabis market. We will preserve and study these landraces in order to protect the genetic diversity and conserve it as part of the Rastafari cultural heritage.

The Beckley Foundation is unique in working in both the scientific and policy fields, which are in fact interdependent. Since 2011, there has been a seismic global shift in favour of drug policy reform. Finally, intelligent and respected people worldwide have realised that prohibition does not work, and that we need a more subtle approach to drug policies, that takes account of reality, and which aims to minimise harms at every level, while respecting the freedom of individual choice.

As research into the beneficial therapeutic potential of this extraordinary plant continues, the global market for cannabis products is likely to grow substantially. We live in exciting times, as the edifice of drug prohibition is beginning to crumble, and the realisation of the amazing properties of this unique plant continue to grow.

I hope that the United Kingdom will learn some lessons from Jamaica's progress, and will at least begin by recognising the rights of those in need of access to cannabis for medicinal and religious purposes.

Amanda Feilding is Director of the Beckley Foundation, a think tank working for health-oriented drug policies based on scientific research. Amanda has recently been appointed as advisor to the Jamaican government in the formation of a comprehensive drug policy and gives her first speech in this capacity at Jamaica's Regulated Cannabis Industry: First Steps, 13-14 November 2015, Negril, Jamaica.