THE celebrated French poet, novelist and dramatist Victor Hugo famously wrote that “nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come”. His words, poetic as they are, may currently be finding resonance with regional pro-legalization advocates since CARICOM has agreed to review its approach to marijuana.
Following the conclusion of “The Twenty-sixth Inter-sessional Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community”, a CARICOM press release dated March 2, 2015, states: “Heads of Government agreed on the composition of the Marijuana Commission which is expected [to] begin its work soon to look into the social, economic, health and legal issues surrounding the use of marijuana and to consult with stakeholders to get views on the issue. The Commission has been established to determine whether there should be a change in the current drug classification of marijuana thereby making the drug more accessible for all types of usage including religious, recreational, medical and research.”
However, as CARICOM explores whether or not the time has come to decriminalize marijuana, two important tenets of democracy must be upheld: participation and accountability. Firstly, citizens of the Caribbean Community must be allowed to voice their interests and play an active role in the current process. Secondly, if CARICOM takes a decision to decriminalize marijuana, it must be held accountable for addressing any and all social ramifications that follow.
Pro-legalization advocates have stated that the time has come for marijuana to be decriminalized. They have pointed out that the classification of marijuana as a dangerous drug has led to the incarceration (at great cost to the state) of numerous people who were caught with small quantities of the drug which was intended for personal use. Further still, they have asserted that marijuana is not addictive, and has not been scientifically proven to cause mental or physical harm.
However, there is evidence that shows marijuana causes damage to the user. Consider the following:
* A 1987 study by Andréasson, et al. found that marijuana contributes to psychosis and schizophrenia.
* A 2013 study from the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that: “Regular marijuana use during adolescence, but not adulthood, may permanently impair cognition and increase the risk for psychiatric diseases, such as schizophrenia.”
* A 2014 National Institute on Drug Abuse report, summarizing a long-term Duke University study reported that: “People who began smoking marijuana heavily in their teens lost an average of 8 points in IQ between age 13 and age 38. Importantly, the lost cognitive abilities were not fully restored in those who quit smoking marijuana as adults.”
* A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that marijuana causes heart attacks and diseases in the arteries, even among the young.
* A 2014 study found that marijuana use during pregnancy can impede development of the baby’s brain.
Notwithstanding the findings of the aforementioned studies, pro-legalization advocates have claimed that marijuana should be legalized because it has valuable medicinal uses. However, to the extent that marijuana has medicinal uses, rather than decriminalization, its use as a medicinal drug can be made available with regulations like any other prescription drug, whereby it can only be purchased from a pharmacy by a patient who has obtained a prescription from a doctor.
Given the abysmal failure of the prohibition of alcohol in the United States of America between the 1920s and early 1930s, there are those who contend that in the same way that it is legal to buy, sell, and use tobacco and alcohol, so too should individuals be able to buy, sell, and use marijuana. This argument however, raises two key points, the first being that Prohibition was able to deter consumption in some way, as alcohol use dropped by 30% to 40% during Prohibiton (Miron&Zwiebel, 1991), and the second being that by decriminalizing marijuana for adults, drug-dealers may target teenagers to supplement their loss of revenue. This would then lead to an increase in marijuana use amongst teenagers. There is also the possibility that decriminalization could also lead to an increase in marijuana use amongst adults, as research by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that legal drugs are used far more than illegal ones because they are accessible and available. This is supported by the NSDUH finding that 52% of Americans use alcohol. Thus, it can be reasonably assumed that marijuana use will increase in CARICOM if it is decriminalized.
An assumption that raises a series of questions:
If CARICOM chooses to pursue decriminalization, will it enforce strict laws banning the promotion, marketing and advertising of all marijuana and marijuana-related products, especially food and candy? Or will the citizens of CARICOM bear witness to profit-driven companies creating, and aggressively marketing marijuana themed products, such as “weed brownies” and “pot-tarts”?
If CARICOM chooses to pursue decriminalization on the strength of the argument that decriminalization and legalization will increase tax revenues to the tune of millions of dollars, has it considered that any additional revenue gained would be outweighed by the increased social and healthcare costs? For example, an Obama Administration report summarizing a Centres for Disease-funded study, stated that: “The cost to society of alcohol alone is estimated to be more than 15 times the revenue gained by their taxation.”
If CARICOM chooses to pursue decriminalization, will it gather data showing how many users of marijuana were arrested, charged and convicted of crimes in the ten years prior to marijuana being decriminalized, and each year since it has been decriminalized, so that its citizens can evaluate whether or not there has been an increase in the number of criminal offences that have been committed by users of marijuana since its decriminalization? Since it may be true to say that a significant underlying factor or contributor to criminal offences in the Caribbean Community is due to marijuana consumption, combined with other circumstances.
If CARICOM chooses to pursue decriminalization, will it allocate resources towards the development and implementation of an effective communication for social and behaviour change program with a strong social marketing component aimed at:
i. Preventing potential users (children, teenagers and adults) from becoming users;
ii. Motivating existing users of marijuana to stop using the drug?
Undoubtedly, there are benefits to keeping marijuana illegal. As CARICOM and its Marijuana Commission moves forward, it is hoped that there will be an informed approach, guided by careful thought and weighted considerations, and defined by listening to its citizens, rather than pronouncements which fail to take into account the full length and breadth of the issue.