How Will Jamaica Handle Its ‘Healing Herb’?

jamaica medical cannabis

By Esteban Rossi I., Ph.D., Analyst, New Frontier Data 

During colonial times, British crown employees brought cannabis from India and inadvertently placed a cornerstone of Jamaican culture.  Ironically, while locals rapidly acknowledged the properties of the “healing herb”, the political establishment adopted a hard stance against it. Nevertheless, the herb took root in the cultural heart of Jamaicans.

Due to the confluence of reggae music and the anti-war social movements of the 1960s, people worldwide now associate cannabis with Jamaica. Domestically, however, the legalization process dragged for decades. The Rastafari community, for example, persistently fought the state for their right to use cannabis for religious purposes facing harsh penalties along the way. Unsurprisingly, the Jamaican government not only denied these requests but also enforced regressive anti-cannabis laws.

Until 2015, cultivation and possession were considered criminal offences, and judges had to follow sentencing guidelines (mandatory minimums).  These circumstances translated into a policy with strong racial and political undertones causing anger among the public. Fortunately, parliament amended the cannabis law in February 2015; the language of the amendment elegantly illustrates the scope and intent of the new legislation:

AN ACT to Amend the Dangerous Drugs act so as to provide for, among other things, the modification of penalties for the possession of ganja in specified small quantities and the smoking of ganja in specified circumstances, and for a scheme of licenses, permits and other authorizations for medical, therapeutic or scientific purposes”.

In the amendment, the government established the Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA) with the mandate to develop the operating rules for the industry. The licensing regulations and other guidelines were first published in 2016.

A functional market
The CLA rapidly established ground rules for the new industry. In brief, key changes included: decriminalization of simple possession, authorization of home cultivation of up to five plants, regulation of sacramental uses, and the establishment of a robust licensing regime that includes direct retail sales. Most importantly, the regulations included a procedure to expunge past cannabis-related convictions, and rules to protect the industry from foreign capital. According to the licensing regime, Jamaican residents should have substantial ownership of cannabis companies.

Since 2018, the CLA had issued 34 cultivation licenses, and 73 licenses for processing, retailing, and transportation. In addition, it issued 250 conditional approvals, indicating that applicants were deemed fit and could begin building their facilities. Presently, license costs range between $2,000-$3,000 USD for cultivation, and a respective $2,500 for retail, $3,500 for processing, and $10,000 USD for transportation.

As of June, this year, the CLA reported that 42 export authorizations had been issued to firms targeting international markets. Similarly, it authorized the export of approximately one ton of dry cannabis flower, three kg of seeds, and over 40 liters of cannabis oil. According to CLA Director Faith Graham, trading figures among licenses comprised $894,749 USD for FY 2019/2020, and $627,089 USD in 2020/2021.

With a population of nearly 3 million, including roughly 10,000 medical patients and approximately 400,000 total cannabis consumers, Jamaica represented an interesting market, much more dynamic than most others in the region, with the exception of Uruguay. In 2020, legal sales of high THC products reached about $12.7 million USD. By comparison, those figures overshadow larger, relatively overhyped markets like Colombia, which despite substantial foreign investment and a large population (i.e., 51.6 million) grew more slowly. In 2020, legal sales of high-THC products in Colombia totaled about $3.5 million USD.

Insights and next steps
How did a small island establish a successful domestic and export-oriented industry in such a short period of time? Jamaicans adopted a cannabis-friendly regulatory approach that facilitates medical access to citizens and tourists via dispensaries. They also made sure that patients had access to a wide range of products (beginning with cannabis flower). And, most importantly, respected the rights and the privacy of religious users and home-growers.

Facilitating patient access to quality products while ensuring that monitoring mechanisms remain in place are essential to an efficient program. The CLA (like Uruguay’s IRCCA) ensured local access to products and put a premium on local business ownership. Moreover, they maintained a fair playing field with opportunities for small, medium, and large firms. Local and international brands have also recognized the popular appeal of the cannabis-friendly Caribbean culture. Firms including Kaya, Jacana, Global Canna Labs, and Marley-Natural each embraced and promoted Jamaican values and lifestyles.

Lastly, as observed by the Rastafarians, the legal limits between adult use and medicinal use depend on social conventions rather than scientific criteria. Consequently, it remains important for regulators and entrepreneurs to focus their efforts on expanding and facilitating legal access. Otherwise, these entry barriers will hinder growth and maintain profitable illicit markets.