Jamaica voted Tuesday night to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, leading the region in softening penalties for pot possession and signaling an easing of decades of tension between the government and the Caribbean island’s Rastafari community. The law could pave the way for a regulated medical cannabis industry; however, legislators stressed that the law would “not create a free-for-all in the growing, transporting, dealing or exporting of ganja,” according to the Guardian.
Advocates of marijuana decriminalization celebrated the move as a victory for the country, where marijuana’s cultural roots run deep. "[The law] eliminates an unnecessary source of friction between police and citizens, and ensures that our young people are not gratuitously shackled with criminal records,” said the country's minister of national security Peter Bunting, according to Sky News. He said the law “begins to correct decades of criminalizing tens of thousands of Jamaicans, mostly poor young black males, for possession of a little 'spliff,’” a term for a joint prepared with cannabis and tobacco.
Jamaica joins a growing number of countries around the world, including in Latin America, that have recognized the crackdown on marijuana has failed to stifle the illegal consumption and trade of the drug. Argentina, Colombia and Mexico have all decriminalized the possession of small amounts of pot. Guatemala has proposed legalizing the drug, as Chile and Costa Rica consider allowing medical marijuana use.
Jamaica, the birthplace of Rastafari, a religion whose followers often regard marijuana use as sacred, has long been known for its lax marijuana culture and is thought to be the biggest Caribbean supplier of marijuana to the U.S., according to the BBC. Cannabis is widely grown in Jamaica and has a reputation for potency. The Rastafari community can now use cannabis for religious purposes freely for the first time in the country’s history.
The drug was first criminalized in Jamaica in the early 20th century under Spanish colonial rule. The country gained independence in 1962, but such laws endured. The Jamaican government agreed to treat marijuana as a harmful drug when it signed the United Nations Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1964. Lawmakers funneled millions of dollars into eradicating marijuana plantations throughout the country, money that some have said could have been better spent on social development, according to the North American Congress on Latin America.