By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
A MARIJUANA advocate yesterday estimated the sector could be worth "more than half a billion dollars" to The Bahamas by 2025, its chairman urging: "Either run to it or be dragged kicking and screaming".
Terry Miller, chairman of the Bahamas Cannabis Research Institute (BACARI), told Tribune Business that a legal medical marijuana industry could generate more than $100m for the Bahamian economy "within the first few years".
Although no supporting research or economic impact studies were produced, he said BACARI was seeking to lead an awareness campaign on the drug's medicinal benefits, arguing that its decriminalisation and industrialisation throughout the Caribbean was inevitable.
"Some may argue that a marijuana industry in The Bahamas would not reap significant rewards due to our size, but that is not true," said Mr Miller.
"We estimate that this industry could easily be worth over $100m early within the first few years, rising to more than half a billion dollars by 2025. More than six million tourists visited The Bahamas in 2016, and the figure is expected to rise in the coming years with the huge increase in room availability and the widespread increase in Airbnb.
"While many of these persons will be casual users, many more will require prescriptions to be filled, bolstering our fledgling medical tourism market. However, the economic value doesn't end there," said Mr Miller. "This could create a significant opportunity for farmers. The Caribbean can really get into this market because of our weather.
"Why would Canada have to buy from Jamaica? Jamaica has a certain strain of marijuana and climate year round. We have that, too. We can become competitive if we can change the minds of our people and our leaders."
The CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana was to this week present the findings of a study it conducted on marijuana decriminalisation in the region at the CARICOM Heads of Government meeting. It was asked by CARICOM in 2014 to fully assess the social, economic, health and legal issues surrounding marijuana use in the Caribbean.
According to the Jamaica Gleaner, the Regional Marijuana Commission (RMC) report argues that a strictly-regulated framework for marijuana, akin to that for alcohol and tobacco, should be introduced. It said there was a unanimous view that the current classification for cannabis/marijuana as a dangerous drug, with no value or narcotic, should be changed to a classification of legal cannabis as a "controlled" substance.
The Jamaican newspaper said there was also unanimity on the need to ensure protections for children and young persons against possible adverse effects from cannabis. The Commission reportedly advised that prohibitions on use by children and young persons should be maintained, except for medical reasons, and called for treatment and diversion programmes for youth users instead of prosecution.
Jamaica has legislated the possession of marijuana up to two ounces as a petty offense, and individuals are permitted to cultivate up to five plants. The country's first medical marijuana dispensary was opened in March this year.
Mr Miller said BACARI is "fully aligned" with the Commission's findings, adding: "This industry should not be set aside for the wealthy among us or for the chosen few, but the average Bahamian; the small man should be given an opportunity to participate in this industry.
"We are committed to this and seek to meet with civil society, have town meetings, meet with the Christian Council, the Bar Association and the police. We know what our position is. We want to hear the opposition because we know that when confronted with the facts people can change their minds."
A recent Public Domain survey has found overwhelming support for medical marijuana among Bahamian residents across demographics of age, gender and income. Seventy-one percent of 998 residents surveyed said they believed marijuana should be legalised for medicinal purposes, and of those aged 55 and older, 179 people - 59 percent - supported legalisation.
Respondents ranked marijuana as the least harmful substance in comparison to tobacco, alcohol and sugar. However, 47 percent of residents strongly agreed that the legalisation of medical marijuana will lead to an increase in recreational use.