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US Virgin Islands senator: Region needs ganja reform

Published: 
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
United States Virgin Islands senator Terrence Nelson addresses members of the media during the session of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation in St Thomas, USVI last Friday.

St Thomas, US Virgin Islands

Caricom countries now contemplating the possibility of the decriminalisation of marijuana should “proceed with an abundance of caution, given the significant adverse effects of cannabis smoking on health and social and occupational functioning, and especially so among youth,” warns executive director of the Caribbean Public Health Agency, Dr James Hospedales.

However, a regional lawmaker, United States Virgin Islands senator Terrence Nelson, immediately said that the region should take every step to capitalise on the current push to legalise the drug. He made the comment via a recorded video presentation to a session of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation held in St Thomas, United States Virgin Islands, on medical tourism last Friday.

In March this year, Caricom leaders, at their Inter-sessional Heads of Government Conference in St Vincent and the Grenadines, established a commission to study and report on the implications of the decriminalisation of marijuana for health purposes.  

Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, who has been in the lead on the call for the decriminalisation, has warned that the Caribbean must not be left behind on this, as a number of US states have decriminalised marijuana and that the “region could find itself buying marijuana products from the great USA.”

Among Caricom states, the Jamaican government has promised that possession of small quantities of marijuana will be decriminalised to end the thousands of cases which now clog the court system and earn vital revenue. Hospedales based his warning on what he said are several scientific studies which conclude that there are significant “adverse effects of cannabis smoking on physical and mental health, as well as its interference with social and occupational functioning.”

The epidemiologist told the CTO delegates discussing medical tourism that the negative effects far outweigh a few documented benefits for a limited set of medical conditions. “If there is any medical role for cannabinoid drugs, it lies with chemically-defined compounds, not with unprocessed cannabis plant,” Hospedales said. Among the negative health effects of marijuana smoking are increased risk of schizophrenia, psychosis and other forms of substance use disorders, Hospedales said.

He said studies “demonstrate an association between marijuana use and the subsequent development of mental health problems.” Hospedales quoted a study done by the Institute of Medicine which concluded that “there is very little future in smoked marijuana as a medically-approved medication.” The IOM, said Hospedales, stated “if there is any future in cannabinoid development, it lies with agents of more certain, not less certain, composition.”

Taking issue with the conclusions of the CARPHA executive, USVI Senator Terrence Nelson, speaking from the floor of the conference, contended there were no scientific facts to prove Hospedales’ claims. “Caricom must adapt and adopt marijuana as a Caribbean commodity and that will also heal our islands’ economies,” Nelson told the conference. “We have a quality product which we can grow all year round to earn revenue from and foreigners come to the Caribbean looking for weed.” 

Nelson, who is one of seven senators representing St Croix, one of the three US Virgin Islands, successfully piloted legislation last Thursday through the committee stage of the VI’s Senate to have a bill placed on the ballot. The bill is to be debated by the VI Senate in November, when a decision will be taken to either throw-out the proposal or have it accepted for full debate and possible passage into law.

Nelson told the T&T Guardian the bill will contain measures to decriminalise marijuana so that people found with small quantities of the ganja (one ounce) would be required to pay US$100 fines instead of being jailed. As to the viability of marijuana as an attraction for tourists coming to the Caribbean, medical tourism expert Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders, told the T&T Guardian there is no market for medical marijuana tourism.

However, he said as part of an “overall tourism experience, the liberalisation of marijuana can be successfully marketed in the markets of the North. “I am not against it but I am trying to put it in a context, but not as medical tourism,” Woodman said.

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