The ongoing Caribbean discussion on the decriminalisation of marijuana provides a telling but sad example of “policy capture” by external interests over decision-making in our Caribbean.
Particularly worrying about the sudden wave of open debate and free exploration of the potential and possibilities of marijuana is the fact that it has arrived, not on the basis of our own indigenous reflection on the issue, but simply because the United States has undertaken a policy shift on the matter.
As a result, our so-called sovereign governments which conduct their business with their eyes firmly fixed on their northern masters, rather than with their fingers on the domestic pulse, are now scrambling to adjust their thinking to conform to the new signal of US acceptability.
While the usual conservative detractors will make their expected reactionary noises about adopting a “realistic” stance about what the Caribbean can do, when one thinks of the tremendous expenditure borne by our countries in the policing of ganja laws, the untold suffering of countless working-class youth and their families due to their incarceration for legal violations, and the loss of revenue from the failure even to undertake the most sanitised and controlled research and experimentation into marijuana and its uses, the full cost of our policy dependency is brought home.
A thoroughly decolonised marijuana policy for the Caribbean, one not dependent for its impetus and legitimacy on external powers, would have been guided by the comparative advantage of the Caribbean in marijuana production, the close identification of significant segments of the population with the plant for cultural and religious reasons, the need for income diversification in an increasingly challenging economic environment and the need to uncover the research and commercial potential of all the plant, animal and marine life which is our natural inheritance.
None of this is meant to ignore the political difficulties associated with acting against the interest of a powerful hegemon.
However, neo-colonial governments like ours tend to put more limits on their room for action than exist in actuality.
While for political reasons we might have been forced to maintain the ban on marijuana use for recreational purposes, there was nothing stopping the establishment of centres for marijuana research, where the medicinal and economic value of marijuana could have been researched under controlled and state-regulated environments.
Indeed, while like good sheep we were busy policing externally imposed criminalisation, our masters were busy researching the “dangerous” substance to the point of having erased any of our natural advantages, allowing them to lift the ban at a point where our ability to “catch up” has been negated.
Any hopes of overcoming colonialism in the formulation of future marijuana policy, however, are dashed by the domination of the debate by religious interests. It should be led by science, not prejudice.
• Tennyson Joseph is a political scientist
at the University of the West Indies’
Cave Hill campus in Barbados,
specialising in regional affairs.
—Courtesy Barbados Nation