Where is the Bold Progressive Step for Cannabis?

Where is the Bold Progressive Step for Cannabis?

ZITA BARNWELL

December 10, 2018, International Human Rights Day, saw the passage of the Medical Cannabis Industry Bill 2018 into law.  Unfortunately, I took ill and could not bear out the full debate or make my contribution to it. Let me say from the outset that in principle I support the passage of the Medical Cannabis Industry 2018 Bill into law.

Like the Honourable Member Patel Matthews I have had my personal “dealings” with ganja. Mine came in my early teen years when I suffered terribly from asthma. Those were the days when one did not have the easing comforts of medical technology such as a nebuliser and medicine such as Combivent. I had no choice but to suffer severe, painful, shallow heaves of precious breath.  As a last resort, my father broke the law; he gave me brewed ganja root to drink. Had he allowed fear and ignorance to swallow him up I probably would not have been alive today or perhaps I would have succumbed to reliance on the artificial inhalants on which many asthma sufferers are hooked. Ganja cured me of my asthma, and my father Sam “Square Deal” Barnwell would have been over the moon with this partial legalisation of Cannabis.  Whether he would have been able to invest in the industry on his own, however, is doubtful.

If we are to accept the solid scientific evidence available for more than 70 years that Cannabis is not the dangerous demon substance that it was made out to be by racist politicians and lawmakers then the most logical step is full legalisation.  And, if we are to accept the fact that for more than 5000 years Cannabis has been used as medicine, sacrament and recreation, then creating a legal and regulatory framework for Cannabis in the nature in which it was recently passed is illogical.

Indeed, like anything else in this world that we consume – water, sugar, salt, milk, tobacco, alcohol, chemotherapy – Cannabis is not without its risks. Some studies show short-term effects on cognition and possibly longer-term change on young developing brains.  But the benefits of Cannabis far, far outweigh its harmful effects.

The passage of the Medical Cannabis Industry Bill clearly indicates that we have chosen to amble alongside the countries that have carved out a pathway for maintaining the status quo rather than to surf the wave of truly bold progressive leaders.

A look at our treatment of the accepted neurotoxin, alcohol, in part shows up our illogical stance on Cannabis. According to the 2015 Pan American Health Organisation and World Health Organisation Regional Status Report on Alcohol and Health in the Americas, 30 % of girls and 40% of boys between the ages of 13 and 15 in St. Vincent and the Grenadines reported being drunk at least once; and out of 35 countries in the Americas, St. Vincent ranks 12th and 10th respectively for heavy episodic drinking among our 15- to 19-year-olds. How have we been protecting our young ones against this poison?  

The same PAHO/WHO 2015 report also reveals that the earlier people start drinking, the more likely they are to develop an alcohol problem; and people who start to drink alcohol before age 15 are 5 times more likely to suffer from an alcohol use disorder; 4 times more likely to become dependent on alcohol; and 7 times more likely to be injured in motor vehicle crashes or in fights. Contrast this with the fact that there is neither a recorded report of overdose on cannabis nor a study that has shown that Cannabis causes or is associated with the health risks of alcohol or tobacco.  In fact, Cannabis substantially reduces premature death, is associated with decreased rates of obesity, diabetes, mortality from traumatic brain injury and reduces the use of alcohol-related driving fatalities and opioid deaths.  It treats cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma and a myriad of other illnesses.

Section 28(2)(b) Schedule 1 of the medical cannabis law provides that one cannot cultivate cannabis within 600 metres of a school or place of worship. While one can have an appreciation for the argument about protecting children one ought to have some difficulty with the hypocrisy and confusion with prohibition regarding churches.  It seems the government has lost a huge opportunity for consciousness-building to extinguish the taboo associated with the healing herb. The same herb that will treat and cure many of the ailments that attack our brothers, sisters and pastors each passing day is seemingly an offence in its growing stage. What does it say about the government’s attitude to Rastafarians and ganja that Christian churches will need protected status from the sacrament of the Rastafarians?

This brings to mind the enlightened view of the Honourable Minister of Health when he says that “we have to reset our thinking and rehabilitate its (cannabis) image”.  So how do we reconcile the inclusion of this prohibition of cultivating Cannabis close to a place of worship? 

Consider too that, under the Act, cannabis will be grown strictly in organic conditions.  Many of us worship or live on or near banana fields and other fields for food crops. We breathe in the pesticides that are wreaking havoc on our neuro system. Recently, the Ministry of Agriculture reported the aerial spraying of 1,561 farms to treat Black Sigatoka disease. Why no prohibition of cultivation of these crops within breath of Christian lungs? What more can one see but political expediency trumping reasoned judgment with respect to the banning of cannabis cultivation within 600 meters of a place of worship?

Meanwhile, the Country Programme Framework 2012-2015 for St. Vincent and the Grenadines tells us that “the contraction of the Agricultural Sector over the past five (5) years has seriously affected rural development (employment, income, export earnings, investment); deteriorated Food Security and slowed considerably the rate of poverty alleviation/eradication especially in rural areas.”

Last month, the current Prime Minister said, forcefully, that “practical assistance to ganja farmers won’t include loans.” But
the new Cannabis law makes provision for undefined technical assistance to traditional farmers. Two things come to mind. The first is that the two most critical factors affecting farmers are access to credit and land ownership, and the second is that the start-up and operational costs for cultivating cannabis are very high. So when Senator Carlos James tries to persuade us that, currently, ganja farmers engage in risky business at no profit, one cannot help but ask: where is the money coming from to help transition them to legal cannabis business, especially when the global trend has been that banks are reluctant to finance Cannabis projects?

According to Forbes Magazine online currently, Cannabis sales internationally exceed US$10 billion and are projected to reach US$31.5 billion by 2021. So who is poised to gain most from it?  The website of Rhizo Sciences, a cannabis consultancy, says, “the medical cannabis industry is booming, growing faster than any industry segment since the dot.com [sic] boom. It sounds like an investor’s dream: Fast moving, high growth, high return, and a queue of institutional investors waiting on the sidelines to pour in capital following legalisation, including big pharma, big food, big alcohol, and big tobacco.”

Debaters from the government side of the House mentioned proudly that investors are already on the ground. One does not have to hazard a guess at who they are, but merely to glance at the front row of the Stranger’s Gallery.  Are we then to believe the current Prime Minister when he says that there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? 

Under our Cannabis law, traditional farmers are capped to cultivating a maximum of 5 acres of land.  In other words their incomes are capped.  Of course, traditional farmers can seek to apply for a higher licence but can they afford it? And would they still be classified as traditional farmers able to access all of the benefits the government says it has to offer? So much for wealth distribution and poverty alleviation!

The bill has been passed. There is no turning back now except that the most progressive, logical, non-racist, all-inclusive, non-conservative, non-prohibitionist  Cannabis regime would be to join the movement created by Uruguay, Canada, The Netherlands, Spain and the 22 plus States in the US, and at least Antigua and Barbuda. But we are told that the long pause in a bold step is our obligation to the UN Single Convention. We have been told by celebrated International Treaty Lawyer Dr. David Berry, who was swooped into a select committee meeting, that we would be liable to sanctions; yet he could not tell the grouping what sanctions were applied to counties that have gone full-blown in their legalisation or decriminalisation. When asked, Dr. Berry said he had not studied it. A rather strange response, I think.

There is absolutely no conflating of the issues with respect to cannabis for medical use, cannabis for religious use and cannabis for recreational use as suggested by the Minister of Health. What exists is a convenient perpetuation of an artificial construct that was set up by conservative prohibitionists, the protection of our vain presence on a United Nations Council, and a disturbing disregard for the health and wellness of and the social justice for our people.

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