Jamaica decriminalized marijuana in small amounts on Tuesday, adding to an international trend in easing cannabis restrictions.
Bills passed by Jamaican legislators in the lower House on Tuesday night made possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana a low-level offense that would not result in a criminal record. It also permitted the cultivation of up to five plants on any premises.
A "cannabis licensing authority" will be established to oversee regulations on distribution of marijuana for medical and scientific purposes. Rastafarians, whose sacrament is ganja, can legally use marijuana for religious purposes for the first time in Jamaica.
The Caribbean island joins over a dozen U.S. states that have legalized or decriminalized pot. Uruguay has legalized it, and Argentina, Colombia and Mexico have recently decriminalized marijuana possession in small amounts.
"The Jamaica decriminalization measure is more expansive and far reaching than in any country except maybe the Netherlands," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance.
Cannabis use has long been culturally entrenched in Jamaica. But laws prohibiting the drug have prevailed amid fears among politicians that marijuana legalization would violate international treaties and prompt U.S. sanctions.
Jamaica's move will resonate strongly in a region that has long resisted drug policy alternatives, said Nadelmann. "Most of the Caribbean nations are very timid on this," he said. "Historically, they have been fearful of crossing the U.S."
But with changes in drug laws in the U.S. and other countries, Jamaica's leaders have high hopes for becoming a player in the nascent medical marijuana industry. The island aims to appeal to health tourists and create therapeutic, pot-derived products such as "Canasol," which helps to relieve eye pressure in glaucoma patients.
Commerce Minister Anthony Hylton said the industry holds "great potential" for Jamaica, which is struggling under its latest loan program from the International Monetary Fund.
Peter Bunting, the island's national security minister, said the law does not mean that Jamaica is softening its position on transnational drug trafficking.
"The passage of this legislation does not create a free-for-all in the growing, transporting, dealing or exporting of ganja. The security forces will continue to rigorously enforce Jamaican law consistent with international treaty obligations," Bunting said in Parliament.
With wire services