On 4/20, the unofficial holiday celebrated by marijuana enthusiasts around the world, Jamaica called for the UN to review the status of cannabis, questioning why the drug is still legally considered as dangerous as heroin under international law.
Speaking before the UN General Assembly, Jamaican Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson-Smith said that scheduling cannabis as a dangerous drug with no medical use — a status that dates back to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs — is outdated and out of touch.
"We contend that the classification of cannabis under the Single Convention is an anomaly and that the medical value of a substance must be determined by science and evidence-based analysis, above other considerations," said Johnson-Smith.
In Jamaica, she told delegates, "cannabis has been traditionally used as a folk medicine, as well as a religious sacrament by adherences to our indigenous faith, Rastafari."
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A day earlier, Johnson-Smith made similar remarks following the passage of the outcome document of the UN's special session on drug policy, known as UNGASS. The text is meant to inform global drug policy in the coming years. However, the document was drafted at the UN's Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, where no Caribbean nation has a permanent mission. Jamaica had to fly in a delegate from Switzerland to attend the negotiations.
The government of Jamaica, Johnson-Smith said on Tuesday, was disappointed that "the document does not allow countries sufficient flexibility to design our domestic policies to fit national circumstances, including recognition of traditional uses of cannabis in our societies."
Last year, Jamaica revised its national drug law to decriminalize the possession of less than two ounces of cannabis, and created a legal regime to regulate its use by the Rastafari community for religious purposes. The government also created provisions for medical, scientific and therapeutic use, and an agency to oversee regulation of the plant.
'The current scheduling which is predicated on it having no useful medicinal purposes is obviously not tenable.'
Jamaica stopped short of created a fully legal market for cannabis, something Uruguay did in 2014, and Canada said this week it would undertake in 2017. Four US states and Washington, DC have done the same, and 24 currently allow some form of medical marijuana.
"I think the discussion on the Jamaican case will take some time and some thinking," said Werner Sipp, president of the International Narcotics Control Board, the quasi-judicial body that oversees the international drug conventions. While he said that the US and Uruguay are currently violating the conventions by allowing recreational marijuana use, he called Jamaica's case "not as clear."
Speaking on the sidelines of the General Assembly session, Senator Mark Golding, who was Jamaica's minister of justice when last year's reform was passed, said he felt the UNGASS outcome document "has some nice text in it, but is still anchored in compliance with the existing treaty system, and that treaty system essentially requires the criminalization of non-medical or non-scientific use" of cannabis.
"We feel that is not any longer a viable position," he said.
One of the starting points for rescheduling cannabis would be for the the World Health Organization (WHO) to undertake a formal review of cannabis' placement in the convention system. The WHO could then recommend to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs that cannabis be rescheduled. But such an official review has never happened, in large part due to continued political pressure by countries with hardline drug policies.
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Further complicating matters is the inclusion of Delta-9-THC — the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — under a second 1971 convention. Rescheduling a substance on the 1961 convention requires a majority vote at the CND, and two-thirds of the body's members would have to approve any alterations to the 1971 treaty. Golding said those hurdles are so steep that rescheduling "ought to be possible."
"I think there is enough evidence of the medical usefulness of cannabis," he said. "The current scheduling which is predicated on it having no useful medicinal purposes is obviously not tenable."
At a side event on Wednesday, Jamaica's deputy solicitor general Kathy-Ann Brown said that Jamaicans had long known cannabis as a plant with medicinal properties, and that its traditional use should be recognized more explicitly under the UN system.
"In Europe, people frequently have a glass of wine with their lunch and that is seen as use of alcohol, not abuse," said Brown. "Where I come from if you're gonna feel like you have to have a bottle of alcohol every day with your lunch you're in need of an intervention. That's the cultural difference I'm talking about when I'm speaking about use versus traditional."
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