NO sooner had the article on common sense been sent for publication than I had cause to pause and reflect on a recommendation contained in it. That recommendation was that the recreational use of marijuana should be legalized, and that in the period while we were determining how to draft this legislation, we should simply adopt the laws as they had been amended in Jamaica.
The matter causing pause was an item on the local news reporting that since the amendment of the laws on marijuana use in Jamaica there had been a 50% increase in the number of young people requiring treatment for drug abuse there. Although that news item had as its source a report in one of the Jamaican newspapers, there is nothing to substantiate the statement in that newspaper article.
That news report however led to much discussion locally on the negative effects of marijuana on the brains of young persons, and gave reason for St. Lucia not to follow in Jamaica’s footsteps. Before going any further, let me say that while I support the legalization of marijuana, this support is not intended to promote its use by anyone, least of all by young people. It should however be available as an adult choice, much the same as cigarettes and alcohol are.
Although illegal in much of the United States by the early 1900s, the problem with the current illegal status of marijuana there is that it acquired this status thanks to its temporary classification in 1970 by the Controlled Substances Act in the United States as a Schedule 1 drug. This classification means that it is viewed as a drug with a potential for abuse similar to that of heroin and LSD, and has no medical benefit. Cocaine is however classified as a Schedule 2 drug, and so is regarded in the classification as less dangerous than marijuana.
That classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug however also means that long term studies on any negative health effects of recreational use of marijuana, or of its medical benefits, have not been conducted. The scientific data that would allow reclassification of marijuana is therefore not available, even though current medical information suggests that marijuana use is much less damaging to health than the use of cigarettes or alcohol, and that there are health benefits to be derived from its use. The result is that while individual states in the US are legalizing medical and recreational use of marijuana, its use still remains a crime at the Federal level although the federal law is not enforced.
While our laws respect the provisions of US law and the UN Conventions which list marijuana as among the most dangerous drugs, there must however be some balance between the damage which marijuana use can cause to those who smoke it, and so to our society at large, and the efforts which we as a society make to curb its use. Not only is the cost of incarcerating users, (mostly young people), to be considered, but we might also want to consider that in the process, we are creating hardened criminals for a practice which is no longer viewed as a crime by a number of states in the United States, and will soon be legal in Canada.
Which takes us back to that news report suggesting that the number of young persons requiring treatment for drug abuse in Jamaica had increased by 50% since the decriminalization of the use of marijuana. While the headline of the article which appeared in the Jamaica Observer on June 30, 2016 is “Ganja Use Soars”, and the introduction of that article suggests that Jamaica’s Minister of Health had pointed to a 50% increase in the number of students now being treated for marijuana use, the body of the article does not report the Minister as saying this. No evidence has been presented either in that article or elsewhere to suggest that use of ganja has soared since decriminalization of its use in Jamaica in April 2015.
According to the Observer article, in his presentation to Parliament the Minister pointed to a 54% increase in the number of students enrolled in a marijuana use prevention programme called STEP-UP, a programme run by the National Council on Drug Abuse, NCDA. The thrust of his presentation in Parliament was in fact that the public education campaign proposed by the NCDA required financing, as only 20% of the Cabinet approved funding had been received. The only reference to “50%” in that Observer article is to the Minister indicating that that is the percentage of all clients receiving treatment for marijuana use at Jamaica’s drug treatment centres.
The issue of drug abuse by adolescents has however occupied the NCDA from long before the amendment of the laws relating to marijuana use in Jamaica in April 2015. In its published review of research of November 28, 2012 the Council reports that “alcohol is (the) most common drug of use and abuse among adolescents and young adults” in Jamaica, and in reporting on the OAS/CICAD National School Survey of 2006 indicated that, of the sample of 4,536 youths surveyed, 65.8% had used alcohol, 21.5% had used marijuana, while 22.5% had used cigarettes.
The repeat of that survey of Jamaica’s secondary school students in 2013 with a sample of 3,365 students showed that 64.1% of students had used alcohol, 20.7% had used marijuana, and 27.5% had used cigarettes. Those studies demonstrate that between the years 2006 and 2013, there had been little change in the percentages of secondary school children using alcohol or marijuana, but that three times the number of young persons who had used marijuana had used alcohol.
Alcohol consumption by students has long been a major problem, and there is a decided problem as well with their use of marijuana and cigarettes. What the headline of that article in the Jamaica Observer of June 30 does, however, is to inflame concerns that decriminalization or legalization of marijuana will lead to its increased abuse by young persons, although there is no evidence to suggest this.
But if we are to maintain the illegal status of marijuana based on the relatively low level of damage that it causes to our health, what then are we going to do about sugar. Yes, sugar! Because almost on a daily basis our health professionals warn us about the high incidence of Type 2 diabetes in St. Lucia, the high cost of its management, the high cost in the loss of limbs and the loss of productivity associated with the impact of this disease. And diabetes and sugar intake are closely linked.
Type 2 diabetes is associated with obesity, which is largely due to the over-consumption of carbohydrates, and one of the more hidden sources of carbohydrates is sugar. It’s not only what you may add to your tea or coffee, but it’s in just about everything else, from breakfast cereal, to ketchup, to “soft” drinks. Even as the levels of fat have been reduced in processed foods in response to health concerns, sugar levels have been increased to compensate for the loss of taste.
The damage done by sugar is well recognized in the United States, with various states attempting to legislate the sizes in which carbonated drinks may be sold, and with attempts to legislate the removal of these drinks from school vending machines. Even Barbados is taxing these carbonated drinks in an attempt to reduce their consumption and so reduce the sugar intake of consumers. And the most susceptible segment of our population? Our youth.
For marijuana then, much as for sugar, cigarettes and alcohol, the issue may revolve more around the provision of comprehensive educational campaigns surrounding its use rather than in the haphazard enforcement of laws which make its use illegal. It should be an adult choice, as making its use illegal results in high costs of incarceration, and criminalizes our young adults. Its use by minors must remain illegal though, as is the case for alcohol and cigarettes, and those laws must be enforced. Trafficking in marijuana must as well remain illegal.
And, if we still have reservations about legalizing it, we can always add the proviso attached to advertisements for the adult use of alcohol: “Use Responsibly!”
PS: On Monday, remember, it’s Emancipation Day. Please spare a thought if you can for your family whose spirit resides in Fond Gens Libre, in Aux Lyons, and in other such spaces amongst us.