Ganja: race, politics and legalization

Dear Editor,

 The issue of legalization of ganja has become a popular issue in the global discourse on drugs since the pioneering role of countries such as Uruguay and Canada led the way regarding the legalization of ganja for medicinal and recreational purposes. However, the road to legalization is not as easy for everyone.

The struggle for legalization has to do with more than ganja. It has to do also with racial, social and political struggles. The approaches to legalization activities must be grounded in this framework. This article embraces and firmly supports the calls for reform of the Single Convention Treaty on Narcotic Drugs, with emphasis on removing cannabis from schedules I and IV, thereby legalizing cannabis. It calls for reform to the 1961 Single Convention in terms of cannabis scheduling, thereby making cannabis legal.

While some countries can withdraw from the international treaties, others will have to creatively operate within the international treaties and lobby with “like-minded” nation states to reform the international treaties. This is a call for a Caribbean collaboration and consensus; and also for the active role of the region in international bodies such as the Commonwealth and the United Nations. There is also the need for increasing the role of civil society groups to provide the leadership aimed at strengthening the position of the governments of the region as well as have cross regional exchanges on ganja and international relations. This struggle for legalization must be taken beyond the boundary of ganja.

There is also the opinion that the international regime for the control of psychoactive substances is defined beyond any moral qualities; it is characterized by racism and imperialism. In late 1896 the Christian missionaries working among Indian laborers began to ask questions about ganja smoking in Jamaica. In February, 1898, the Synod of the Presbyterian Church petitioned the Legislative Council “on the evil use of ganja among the East Indians in the island”. The Daily Gleaner Editorial, “Ganja Smoking as a Danger to the Natives of the Colony” (June 10, 1913), was an early “treatise” on weed smoking in Jamaica. According to the white elites in Jamaica it was in the characteristics of the Indian to become passive when they smoke ganja. The view was expressed that the practice of widespread use of the weed among the black majority was a dangerous mix: because when black people smoke the weed they express themselves in terms of violence. At the very early International Opium Commission meeting convened in February 26, 1909 in Shanghai that represented one of the first steps toward international drug prohibition. Dr. Hamilton Wright and Episcopal Bishop Charles Henry Brent headed the U.S. delegation

According to the notes the first U.S. Drug Czar Dr. Hamilton Wright (appointed by Theodore Roosevelt) was a fanatic racist. He believed that “drugs made blacks uncontrollable, gave them superhuman powers, and prompted them to rebel against white authority”. The views of that meeting had influence on the 1913 and 1924 Opium Treaties. The mention of cannabis to the 1924 Geneva Convention by the delegates from South Africa “took some of the delegates by surprise”. South Africa had already banned the cultivation, sale, possession and use of cannabis in 1922 from the perspective that cannabis was “a dangerous habit-forming drug”. There is the view that the perspectives of the South Africans were grounded in fear because of the smoking of marijuana among the black Africa liberation fighters.

There were cases of racism and an anti-drug crusade in Canada in the 1920s and later in the United States in the 1930s. During the campaign 1923 drug law in Canada, Emily Murphy, a magistrate from Alberta, her book, “The Black Candle”, directed explosive outrages against the negro drug dealers and Chinese opium peddlers; that these two races with opium and marijuana were political conspiracies aimed “to debase the white race”. Harry J. Anslinger, American drug czar during the 1930s, publicly and exposed the alleged relationship between marijuana smoking and crime; his anti-marijuana propaganda was reinforced by reports from the federal police that 50 percent of crimes committed in the districts occupied by immigrants from Mexico, Spain, Latin America, Greece and negroes may be traced “to the evils of marijuana smoking”. In his hallmark testimony to the American House of Congress in April, 1937, Harry J. Anslinger declared that “most marijuana smokers are negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians and entertainers” and that the “satanic” music is driven by “marijuana smoking”; and that white women were duped into sex by these marijuana smoking black musicians.

The imperialistic quality of the current drug treaties is reflected in the geopolitics of North-South political relations in the 20th century. The strictest controls in the treaties were placed on organic substances – the coca bush, the poppy and the cannabis plant – which often form part of the ancestral traditions of the countries where these plants originate; whereas the North’s cultural products, tobacco and alcohol, were ignored and the synthetic substances produced by the North’s pharmaceutical industry was subject to regulation rather than prohibition.

The international conventions constitute a “two-tiered system that regulates synthetic drugs and prohibits the organic substances produced by the South”. They force developing countries to abolish all non-medical and non-scientific uses of the plants that for centuries had been embedded in historical, social, cultural and religious traditions. “The treaties were negotiated and adopted in an era when both illicit market and understanding of its operation bore little resemblance to those of today”. However, there is “growing and much-needed attention being devoted to the legal technicalities of treaty revisions”. There is, of course, widespread activity in decriminalization and legalization in North America, South and Central America, the Caribbean and Europe.

It is against this background that I call for a resurrection of the activist role of Caribbean countries in both the Commonwealth and the United Nations during the 1970s, especially in the era of its role and activities for the liberation of Southern Africa. In today’s world, countries of the Commonwealth, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Jamaica, among others, have made major strides in new regimes for ganja. There has been increasing progression in England for change in the drug law especially for medical marijuana. For example, the pioneering work of GW pharmaceutical makes that country a leader in the export of legal (medical) marijuana products.

The struggle for legalization ought to be considered as a continuation of our struggles against racism and the deliberate strategies of the West aimed at fostering a setting characterized by self-hate, inferiority complex, dependency and persistent underdevelopment.


– Louis E.A. Moyston, PhD

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