Friday, May 23, 2014

The Creeping Decriminalization of Marijuana in the Caribbean

May 23, 2014

While the decriminalization of marijuana has been a topic of discussion for decades, those in attendance at this week’s Jamaica Cannabis Conference are doing more than just blowing smoke—they are discussing the upcoming stages of a long-overdue and vital transformation of the Caribbean’s regional economy. Jamaica has long been associated with potent, naturally grown marijuana, but also the unfortunate social ills that have accompanied its criminalization.

While marijuana, or ganja, arrived in the Caribbean with Indian indentured laborers in the mid-1800s, it was not criminalized until 1913, when the Ganja law came into effect at the behest of the church and colonial elites. The ban was largely based on ignorant, racist perceptions of the evil effects that ganja would have on the poor black majority, and thus dealt out fines and other oppressive penalties for consumption or cultivation. During the 1940s and the 1950s, despite the cultivation of ganja for spiritual and medical reasons, it became the routine justification for government raids upon the original, self-sufficient Rastafari community of Pinnacle.

Despite Jamaica's independence in 1962, the colonial origins of criminalizing ganja were not eroded, but strengthened. When Jamaica signed the United Nations Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1964, it became obligated to treat marijuana as a harmful drug, following the prevailing attitude of the United States. Under the banner of the War on Drugs, the Jamaican government diverted millions of dollars from social development to eradicate marijuana plantations through aerial spraying. If Jamaica refused, under the conditions of the U.S. Drug Certification Policy enacted in 1986, Jamaica would risk losing access to U.S. trade, aid, loans, and visas.

There are very serious human rights issues associated with the prohibition of marijuana. Across the Caribbean, courts are backlogged with simple possession charges for small quantities of marijuana. In one case in St. Lucia, fines for small quantities of marijuana reached $200, or up to 30 days in jail. These charges in turn limit employment and travel opportunities, creating intergenerational disadvantages for those who face jail time. As a result of the overloaded prison systems across the region, the economic and social costs of marijuana are tremendous, as much needed economic resources are taken away from social development and funneled towards and endless cycle of law and order policies.

In addition, the criminalization of marijuana has also led to the unfortunate and unnecessary marginalization of the Rastafari community, which regard the herb as a holy sacrament. Last August St. Lucian journalist Earl Bousquet commented on the negative portrayal of marijuana in the 1960s and 1970s:

Marijuana was...pinned to the Rastafarian movement that started spreading to the rest of the region from Jamaica at the same time. The then leaders erroneously hoped they could easily do away with ‘Rastas and marijuana’ through new laws and armed police forces. By legally twinning Rastafarianism with an illegal substance, growth of a positive and distinctively Caribbean social movement driven by the works of Marcus Garvey, rooted in Pan Caribbean-African nationalism and advocating closer communion with nature half-a-century ago was stifled, suppressed and forced to spend more time resisting and fighting ‘Babylon’ than refining the philosophical, spiritual, cultural and political base of the only indigenous Caribbean movement of its kind in the 20th century.

As a further result of these criminalization policies, Jamaica now has to play catch up in the newly emerging legal and medical marijuana market, according to Dr. Albert Lockhart, a leading ophthalmologist and noted speaker at the Cannabis Conference, who stated that “we are 40 years late.” Dr. Lockhart has helped to pioneer medicine derived from marijuana such as Canasol (which treats glaucoma) and Asmasol (which treats asthma), but due to lack of funding their discoveries are not widely known outside of the island. Dr. Lockhart further warned that if Jamaica does not act now it would be at risk of missing the boat, losing out to countries such as the United States, where the states of Colorado and Washington have fueled the push for legalization across the region—and Canada where medical marijuana has become big business.

Phillip Paulwell, Jamaican Minister of Science and Technology, has assured interested parties that marijuana will be decriminalized by the end of the year. Paulwell remarked that “I am of the firm opinion that scientific research into marijuana, both in the very many uses of the plant as hemp, and its medical properties, is an idea whose time has come,” adding that a marijuana-based medical industry could earn as much as $5.2 billion.

So the Cannabis Conference closed with hope that Jamaica and the wider Caribbean will be able to finally cash in and create a world leading, legal industry which not only acts as a cash crop and provides much needed agricultural jobs, but also as the building blocks for the development of wide ranging medical treatments. Additionally, the new CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana Use shows a regional investigative interest. Beyond just decriminalization, the Ganja Future Growers and Producers Association has been advocating for a regulatory model that will benefit small growers instead of large corporations, stating: “For the first three years of a regulated industry, licenses should only be given to plots of one acre or less.” The taxable income from the industry has the power to transform stagnating Caribbean economies and will allow them to have the self determination to rightfully produce a quality product which the world has always demanded in great quantity, but has been criminalized for far too long.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

After 34 Years, Walter Rodney's Assassination in Guyana now Under Review

May 7, 2014

Just after 8pm on June 13, 1980, Walter Rodney was assassinated by a bomb hidden in a walkie-talkie at the height of his political activism. Rodney was a bright light in a Guyana trying to navigate its way through political chaos, and his assassination ushered in a dark time for those who hoped to bring about grassroots social transformation in Guyana, and throughout the Caribbean.

2574For nearly 34 years, the untimely assassination of Walter Rodney had gone virtually uninvestigated—a coroner's inquest in 1988 concluded that Rodney had perished either "by accident or misadventure." However, while the long delay and reluctance by the Guyanese government has led to several of the most prominent figures escaping justice, it is hoped that the Commission of Inquiry (COI), which began on April 28, will provide the chance for the PNC government to finally set the historical record straight.

In his short life, Walter Rodney displayed incredible intellectual ability, earning his PhD at the age of 24 and, only a few years later, producing the classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, a brilliant account of how the poverty and inequality that Africa currently faces is a direct result of Europe’s colonial violence and domination. In addition to these achievements, Rodney was an individual who best exemplified the idea of praxis—linking his intellectual analysis with political activity, dedicated to organizing and empowering the masses who had historically been excluded from exercising political power. As such, Rodney has been repeatedly referred to as “the prophet of self-emancipation”—a firm believer and practitioner of People’s Power and Pan-Africanism.

Rodney’s political activism was deeply shaped by Guyana's turbulent political history. In 1950, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) started out as the first mass, multi-ethnic party in the country, running upon a pro-independence platform (at the time Guyana was self-governing, but not formally independent), stressing economic development and the creation of a socialist society. Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham were both founding members of the PPP, however in the aftermath of a coup organized by the British government in October 1953, Jagan and Burnham split—resulting in a fracturing of political representation along ethnic lines. Jagan and the PPP were largely considered to be the party of the Indo-Guyanese population, while Burnham and the People’s National Congress (PNC) became the party of the Afro-Guyanese.

During the late 1970s, Guyana’s neo-colonial political system experienced a deep crisis due to the Burnham government’s repeated electoral fraud, concentrating power through unconstitutional amendments and responding to the backlash with beatings, imprisonment, and harassment of political opponents. It was in the midst of this crisis whereby the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), a newly formed opposition political party uniquely organized along the lines of racial and economic diversity, sought to transcend the establishment tactic of ruling via manipulating the country’s racial divide. Thus due to the important origins of the WPA and their political line, party members were quickly singled out by the authoritarian government of Forbes Burnham as enemies of the state. This state of repression against Burnham's political opponents, which included Walter Rodney, continued until 1992, when Cheddi Jagan was elected president.

Aside from Forbes Burnham, the “intellectual author” of the assassination who passed away in 1985, the individual widely suspected of being the behind the assassination was an ex-sergeant of the Guyana Defence Force and electronics expert, Gregory Smith. Smith quickly disappeared after the assassination of Rodney, eventually resurfacing in French Guiana under the name Cyril Johnson. Due to the repeated dismissal of calls for Smith to be extradited back to Guyana, Smith eventually escaped justice—passing away from lung cancer in 2002.

Even the U.S. State Department “declared that from the available evidence the government [of Guyana] was involved in the assassination of Walter Rodney and the removal of key witnesses to the tragedy," according to Arnold Gibbons in The Legacy of Walter Rodney in Guyana and the Caribbean.

The current COI aims to investigate and uncover the truth behind a brutal period of Guyana's history. According to the highly contested “Terms of Reference” of the COI, the three designated commissioners will “examine and report on the actions and activities of the state such as the Guyana Police Force, the Guyana Defense Force, the Guyana National Service, The Guyana National People’s Militia, and those who were in command and superintendents of these agencies to determine whether they were tasked with the surveillance of, and the carrying out of actions, and whether they did execute those tasks and carry out those actions against political opposition from the period January1, 1978 to December 31, 1980.”

The WPA has disputed the narrow timeframe of the inquiry, as repression occurred over a longer period. In addition to the narrow timeframe, the Chairman of the COI, Sir Richard Cheltenham has argued that the COI “is not intended to prosecute anyone, but to bring closure to an unresolved issue in the country’s history.” This stipulation was met with resistance by the WPA and the Guyana Human Rights Association, as the initial call for an inquiry into Rodney’s death was to be a matter ultimately concerned with justice—not only as a means to reconciliation.

During the first week of the COI, several key individuals close to Rodney testified about the threats, intimidation, and acts of state terrorism routinely faced by Rodney and WPA supporters. However, and perhaps revealing efforts to undermine the investigation, Crime Chief Leslie James revealed that seven out of the ten Guyana Police Force files on the assassination of Walter Rodney have gone missing.

Despite these obstacles, there is a very strong, organized effort to make sure that the COI is conducted in a fair and transparent manner. Spearheading that effort is the Justice for Walter Rodney Committee, made up of concerned Guyanese and supporters around the world. The second nine-day session will begin on May 27.

In addition to the deep scar on Guyana, the assassination of Walter Rodney must be situated as part of a sustained effort to eradicate the potential of the new left from taking root in the Caribbean—which included the murder of Grenada’s Maurice Bishop, leader of the New Jewel Movement in 1983.
As put forward by Aaron Kamugisha in Caribbean Political Thought: Theories of a Post-Colonial State, “His assassination at 38 deprived the Caribbean and the third world of one of its leading radical intellectual voices, and for many, was one of the decisive defeats of the early 1980s from which the Caribbean left has never recovered, stumbling from structural adjustment to neoliberal globalization in the decades that followed. Rodney for many is both remembered as the most brilliant radical intellectual produced in the Anglophone Caribbean’s post-colonial history as well as a reminder of the authoritarian lengths of the elites that govern its states."