By MALCOM STRACHAN
IT is “high” time the conversation of marijuana decriminalisation or legalisation be approached intellectually. This has been a subject of recent debate, particularly gaining momentum at the beginning of the year. CARICOM’s regional assessments led to a town meeting over a week ago, where despite a lack of representation from the people that oppose marijuana decriminalisation or legalisation, there was still a good turnout, as citizens came out in droves to voice their opinions on the issue.
Even though those not in support of marijuana reform were not present, CARICOM representatives were still able to gauge people’s thoughts on the subject. Truthfully, it was good to see citizens come forth and relay their concerns and highlight the plight our marijuana laws place on society.
One gentleman’s passionate plea to the moderator was said to be “moving” as he, in riveting detail, served as a spokesperson for the young men whose records become tainted for as little as a joint – effectively leading them on paths to becoming menaces to a society that long turned its back on them. He beckoned to our religious leaders – chief among them former Bahamas Christian Council president Bishop Simeon Hall - to stand in the gap against the injustices.
How ironic is it that a God-created herb with such a storied application to the medical world is so terribly stigmatised in today’s world – inparticular here in The Bahamas.
We, as a people, are so hell-bent on forming “groupthink” rather than making ourselves knowledgeable on a subject. It is to our detriment as we only repress ourselves in an evolving world.
It begs the question: Who’s afraid of “Big Bad Mary Jane?”
Will its legalisation or decriminalisation mean doom and gloom for our nation? And if that is the case, how are we currently managing to survive - as it is only such a major talking point because of its prevalence even while illegal?
The Bahamian ultra-conservative sect is terrified and would throw everything short of the kitchen sink at this issue. We’ve heard everything from it going against our status as a “Christian nation”, to suggestions we would be living in a 700 island and cay zombie-land with already slow-moving civil servants moving at an even slower pace.
Since the meeting, there has even been a polarising temperament coming out of the cabinet on the issue. Perhaps, the most surprising is the disinterest of Dr Duane Sands, who has been more reticent on the subject than some would have expected. As a medical professional, he should be fully aware of the benefits that medicinal marijuana has had in his field since its rebirth in the 90s, as well it historically being renowned as a treatment for conditions such as asthma all the way to more terminal illnesses such as cancer.
The stigma associated with smoking marijuana - that many people still believe to this day – originated with an influx of Mexicans migrating to the United States who used the herb for recreational uses. This caused the act to be looked down upon by the masses. However, this, as we can see in the modern United States, may be much more of a racial issue than anything else.
Lo and behold, an immigration issue turned into a war on drugs and marijuana being classified as a dangerous drug.
Additionally, with big pharma seeing the threat of a natural remedy to many of the illnesses a multitude of resources would have been pumped into, something would have to be done to protect the private interests of a few ambitious men.
Subsequently, media tycoon William Randolph Hearst set on a crusade against marijuana by manufacturing and sensationalising uncorroborated stories to sway public opinion. Among the fallacies he published, he suggested marijuana sent people on a drug-induced craze where they murdered people. This is perhaps one of the greatest mistruths associated with marijuana, as there has been no palpable evidence to validate a homicide associated with the herb.
Still, we live in a society where it as seen as the big bad wolf and getting high will send you on a similar drug-induced, murderous crusade. It is laughable that we have such staunch believers in this tale that they would probably reject any research that disproves this notion before turning their belief system on its head.
Yet, some Christians smoke cigarettes and partake in alcohol. And those that don’t aren’t running through the streets dousing their fellow man with holy water and reciting scriptures. However, when it comes to marijuana, it is the spawn of Satan, himself!
By the numbers
We can simply look at the numbers: In 2011, there were 2.5 million alcohol-related deaths. By the following year, this tragic statistic rose to 3.3 million net deaths. Further, in 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) published that alcohol contributed to more than 200 diseases and injury-related health issues. Despite these harsh realities, alcohol consumption is certainly legal and practically a cultural norm in Bahamian society.
Tobacco statistics are even more alarming: America’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes more than 16 million Americans are living with a disease caused by smoking. Moreover, six million Americans die annually, and this number is projected to increase to eight million by 2030. However, tobacco, like alcohol, is a socially accepted vice.
According to The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2017 World Drug Report, the aforementioned numbers on alcohol and tobacco dramatically dwarf drug-related deaths, which are estimated to be around 190,000 and in most cases can be attributed to opioid usage. The CDC also released that 46 people died every day in 2016 from prescription opioid overdoses.
Yet here we are, shaking in our boots at the big, bad marijuana plant.
One would be hard-pressed to find similar statistics on marijuana. In fact, the majority of the research that exists point to an impossibility of there being an overdose caused by cannabis.
Even when we look at a pain reliever of a “lesser effect”: when someone has a headache or any kind of pain, in search of relief they may take an aspirin. Why not? This is widely accepted and not frowned upon, in that it does not have the same addictive properties as stronger pain relievers. However, its side effects can consist of black/bloody faeces, coughing up or vomiting blood, severe nausea, fever, swelling, upset stomach, heartburn, drowsiness - and bizarrely – pain or a headache – the reason one sought out relief to begin with. Now, isn’t that ironic!
Moreover, an Oxford University study revealed daily aspirin usage resulted in 3,000 deaths in the United Kingdom – another jurisdiction that has been on the conservative end of the marijuana debate. However, as the world’s outlook on the plant and its pros potentially far outweighing its cons being seen as budding industries are flourishing all around the world, we shouldn’t be surprised to see a change in the UK in the near future.
Generally speaking, the outdated views by some – particularly in The Bahamas where we still refuse to remove the plank from their eyes so we can clearly see that when regulated marijuana has myriad benefits, socially, medically and economically - are terribly stifling.
If we were to engage in constructive dialogue, with biases removed we would see clear benefits that ought to be considered.
As crime has been a Goliath of sorts, any law enforcement official would tell you that the majority of the killings taking place are a result of the gang wars on our streets. While not having been scientifically proven, jurisdictions which have legalised or decriminalised marijuana have seen considerable decreases in their crime statistics. For example, in 2013, Washington State recorded a 13 percent reduction in murders and ten percent in overall crime.
This is certainly something to take note of.
Legalisation of marijuana has taken major steps in undermining the Mexican drug cartels by biting off a large chunk of their profits. Over time, we may be able to see a true correlation if this trend continues.
Similarly, as local gangs fight over turf and its resources come largely from the illegal distribution of marijuana, the policy makers would potentially be dealing a lethal blow to their operations as well.
Even if we were to only look at decriminalisation as an initial phase - internationally, it has also been seen that criminalising young people by staining their records at such a young age only serves to cripple them in society. Oftentimes, the lack of options that result from being convicted of marijuana possession – even when it is a single joint – end up creating the criminals that we fear today.
Shall we continue to let our sometimes, stifling narrow-mindedness and immovable belief in a debunked stigma continue to guide our perceptions and perpetuate a vicious cycle?
Think of the medical feats that can be achieved for our suffering brothers and sisters.
According to the US Census Bureau, as of 2016, there were approximately 2.6 million medical marijuana users. Among them, about 92 percent stated the treatment was helpful.
However, this is not an argument to suggest we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather, both modern medicine and medical marijuana can be used to treat the ailing and sick interchangeably, where recommended by a medical professional.
While we look at some of our progressive neighbours, the economic benefits are indubitably an indicator the profit potential is worth analysing for the Bahamian government.
For a country that hooks its employment prospects to a volatile tourism industry, we ought to seriously consider the fact that in the United States alone, the marijuana industry is slated to account for more jobs than the manufacturing industry by 2020.
By looking at a small sample size to create a snapshot of the employment opportunities, 57,500 jobs have created between Colorado, Washington and Oregon. Also, those states racked up $175m, $241m and $55m respectively in tax revenue.
Surely, this would have to be applied to the Bahamian context, but the numbers don’t lie. This industry, if regulated correctly, has a host of benefits.
But first, before we can move forward, we must ask ourselves: “Who’s afraid of the ‘Big Bad Mary Jane’?” And secondly, “Why?” - when its illegality obviously does not prevent its consumption?
Will legalising or decriminalising marijuana be the end-all, be-all to our nation’s laundry list of problems? Of course not. However, for a “people’s government” to ignore what seems to be the will of the people - especially when there is a plethora of other examples accessible for them to study – it would certainly be a less than progressive move for a prime minister who has committed himself to leading the country in the 21st century.
As the Cabinet prepares to take a day to discuss this latest topic of debate, we are eager to see what they come up with. Hopefully, it is consistent with their mantra of it being “the people’s time”.