Beginning the process of marijuana legalization in The Bahamas
We arrest and prosecute our citizens for smoking a joint, wasting police time and making criminals of decent people seeking a short-term recreational high.
We ban the growth and sale of marijuana, preventing Bahamians from cultivating and selling a product that could make us owners of a major industry, create thousands of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in economic activity.
Our policies toward marijuana are backward and misguided. They hold The Bahamas back from being at the forefront of what will be one of the major growth industries of the 21st century.
The question is no longer if marijuana should be made legal. Widespread acceptance of the plant across North America and by the next generation of Bahamians makes its legalization inevitable.
The question is when. And that when has significant ramifications.
The success of the legalization movement across North America means that entrepreneurs in the hemisphere’s two richest countries are getting a head-start creating companies and the infrastructure necessary for a legal global export industry. Those who come late to the marijuana business will end up mere consumers of their products, rather than producers and owners.
Policymakers should start the process to get The Bahamas in the game. This vast chain of empty islands, with so much sunlight, is prime for marijuana cultivation.
After proper study and with the right framework and timing, legalization could add another pillar to an economy in need of reinvigoration.
Uruguay was the first country in the world to fully legalize marijuana, including for recreational use, in December 2013. Its dispensaries started selling weed in July 2017.
Canada will be the second on October 17.
The decision by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to legalize is significant. Canada is a G7 country with one of the largest economies in the world. New Frontier Data, an industry research firm, projects the domestic Canadian cannabis market will reach CAD$9.2 billion by 2025.
In the United States, while marijuana is illegal at the federal level, nine states have fully legalized. Medical marijuana is legal in 31.
In a report by Arcview Market Research, in partnership with BDS Analytics, it is projected that consumer spending around the world on legal marijuana will reach $57 billion by 2027.
In the United States, the legal marijuana market is projected to reach $11 billion in consumer spending in 2018.
In our region, Jamaica decriminalized small possession of marijuana in 2015 and opened up to a medical marijuana industry.
The CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana this summer recommended the declassification of marijuana as a dangerous drug in all legislation and the reclassification of it as a controlled substance in its report presented to the CARICOM heads of government.
“… The commission is unanimous in its view that the current classification for cannabis/marijuana as a dangerous drug with no value or narcotic, should be changed to a classification of cannabis as a controlled substance,” according to the report.
“The commission is unanimous in its view that ultimately, legal policy toward marijuana should be informed, not by punitive approaches, but by public health rationales, within a human rights, social justice and developmental perspective.
“A too-limited approach to law reform, including one that focuses only on medical marijuana, would be counterproductive and inimical to the goals of Caribbean development, as outlined in the SDGs (sustainable development goals) and endorsed by CARICOM.
“Consequently, there is consensus that all criminal penalties from marijuana laws should be removed.”
In a telephone survey by market research firm Public Domain (a firm I have an interest in) between June 1 and June 14, 71 percent of respondents supported marijuana being legalized for medicinal purposes.
Objections and harm
Conservatives in The Bahamas still regard marijuana as a dangerous drug that destroys people and families. To them one drag of a joint creates an addict.
They also argue that smoking marijuana harms your health in other ways, hence the need for the ban.
It’s true that smoking anything could lead to respiratory illnesses and cancer. A small number of young smokers of strong weed experience mental health issues, too.
But too much alcohol destroys the liver, could make you an alcoholic and contributes to cancers. Too much fast food leads to obesity, hypertension, diabetes, cancers and premature death. Too much refined sugar does the same.
In allowing the use of products that carry some risks, along with benefits, we have long accepted that self-regulation and state regulation are better options to govern human behavior than prohibition.
One of the major harms of our current policy is we unnecessarily make criminals of our people.
While magistrates in recent years have been more lenient with small possession, police still arrest you and then detain you at a station. Next comes arraignment at court. There you hope a magistrate shows mercy.
Spending the weekend in a cell for a joint could lead to the loss of a job and social stigma.
If police think the amount you had was “too much” for personal use, the charge could be upped. Then, if convicted, you face prison, permanent difficulty finding work and trouble traveling.
These laws are abusive and unnecessary.
Our focus should be on getting into global big business and not locking up our citizens.
Let’s not be last into the market
As Canada legalized nationally, so too will the U.S., eventually. Western Europe will not be far behind.
As the legal Western producers become more efficient in cultivation, packaging, distribution and marketing, they will want new markets for their excess supply. They will pressure states that ban the plant to legalize.
Numerous products come from the various cannabis varieties. Joints are a mere part of it. There are drinks, sleep aids, edibles, creams and beauty products, medicines, construction materials, clothing, biofuel, paper, types of plastic composites and many other applications.
There is only one real threat to a small country such as The Bahamas legalizing now. Because marijuana is not yet legal in major countries, the industry is pretty much shut out of the global banking system. The decades of prohibition laws define marijuana money as the proceeds of crime.
The marijuana industry is largely a cash business in the U.S. states in which it is legal because of federal drug and money laundering laws, for example.
Canada’s full entry into the market will help change that. It has a mature global banking system. As it slowly integrates with the weed industry, new norms and acceptance will result.
It’s unlikely that countries would sanction Canada for its financial institutions doing business with the marijuana industry. Smaller countries, however, minus the size, wealth and clout, cannot rely on being treated as fairly.
The Bahamas, for example, is being abused by the European Union over banking laws when European Union territories, such as Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, have some of the largest offshore financial centers in the world.
Fears over punitive action by big countries should not prevent us from starting the process to get in the game, however.
Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis was right to appoint a group to examine the question.
Last month he announced that Cabinet approved the make-up of a committee to examine the issue of marijuana and to make recommendations to the government.
The committee should study Uruguay, Canada and the U.S. states where marijuana is legal. We should learn from their successes, failures and challenges. A legal industry in The Bahamas could avoid the errors they could not predict when they legalized.
We do not need to reinvent the wheel with our policy. Take from what has worked.
A serious committee would report to the government early next year with a firm policy recommendation.
It would be worthwhile for the committee to visit jurisdictions where marijuana is legal to gain practical knowledge of how the industry works.
Be at the forefront of change
While this committee studies, we should take our first step toward reform. We should decriminalize marijuana for personal use and expunge the records of everyone convicted for small marijuana possession.
There is consensus that people should not be arrested and prosecuted for having a joint or two. All that is required is a simple bill to Parliament.
There are many decriminalization laws around the world. We could be informed by them.
Younger Bahamians would be supportive of a government that has the courage to move into the future with a new mindset toward marijuana.
We have an opportunity to be one of the leaders in the world in this new industry if we enter early and properly after careful consideration.
It is key that we understand how being part of the new global industry would affect perception of the country as a fit and proper legal jurisdiction. Learning from the Canadian experiment is key.
The Bahamas has limestone terrain and little top soil. Agriculture has been tried and tried, but large industry never endured.
There is something special, though, about marijuana and this climate and territory. The major drug busts are instructive.
On Andros, Grand Bahama and Abaco, cultivators were found in possession of 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 plants in individual police raids over the years. Some plants were over six feet tall.
These grow-ops were done in hiding, without modern agricultural science and irrigation.
Imagine what’s possible in a legal industry. Imagine that industry owned by Bahamians, employing Bahamians.
Marijuana is an opportunity for The Bahamas. We should not let it pass us by.