The topic of ganja is never far from the news in Jamaica. Ganja is our word for marijuana. It is now a minor ticketable offence to possess two ounces of ganja under the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act of 2015. Cultivation of five or fewer plants in any one household is also allowed; and Rastafarians may use ganja for sacramental purposes. There is now a Cannabis Licensing Authority, which is supposed to regulate the legal cultivation and distribution of ganja. Research is now being carried out into the medicinal uses of ganja. However, many Jamaicans remain a little vague about “decriminalisation” – which is of course NOT the same thing as legalisation. The police still regularly seize quantities of ganja (they seized ten garbage bags full in downtown Kingston, just today). There is a lot of talk about Jamaica “cashing in” on what is sometimes called “green gold” and a lot of complaining about how ganja has already taken off commercially in certain U.S. states and countries. Little action. We’re really in a muddle over ganja – which is undeniably a part of Jamaican culture.
Meanwhile a major concern is that the envisaged post-decriminalisation public education campaign on how and how not to use ganja (especially for young people) never really took place. The Ministry of Health has reported a fifty per cent increase in the number of children seeking assistance for ganja-related problems at public health facilities since 2015. The National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA) has also reported that 70 per cent of Jamaicans have easy access to ganja, and that young children have been trying it out. The aforementioned Cannabis Licensing Authority has cast doubt on the NCDA’s latest study. I have been familiar with the sterling (and generally poorly funded) work of the NCDA in recent decades and believe this criticism is most unhelpful and unfair. The government agency is now seeking to defend itself.
The Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) has decided to set out the facts on ganja – the pros and cons – while defending the NCDA study. In the press release below the MAJ also raises concern that “the discussions seem to have taken a turn for the worse, with the rhetoric focusing more on outselling our competitors without due consideration for potential adverse effects on our people, especially our youth.” (Can we please not continue to sell our young people short? We seem incapable of doing the right thing as far as our children’s health, welfare and safety is concerned).
Please read on.
April 11, 2017
Recent global discussions have focussed on legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal and adult recreational use. Marijuana refers to the dried leaves, flowers, stems and see of the cannabis sativa plant. The love of this plant has largely centred around the fact that it contains the mind-altering chemical delta-9-tetrahydocannabinol (THC). The THC can be obtained from marijuana in 2 main ways:
- Inhalation: a/ Smoking – rolled cigarettes (joints) or using pipes or bongs. b/ Vapours – either from burning the leaves or using liquid extracts
- Ingestion – eaten in cookies, brownies or candies or used in teas
Inhaled THC gets into the blood stream (and hence the brain) very quickly to exert its effects. When ingested, it takes as much as 30 minutes to an hour and so acts more slowly.
The ill-effects of marijuana on the body are not completely known. This is because it has been largely illegal worldwide, resulting in few test subjects. Nonetheless there is evidence that it does have potential ill-effects in the short and long term. Most of the documented ill-effects of marijuana have been attributed to the THC, and with the development of the marijuana industry, THC levels in marijuana has been on the increase.
The documented short-term effects of THC include:
- Altered senses such as seeing brighter colours
- Altered sense of time
- Changes in mood
- Impaired movement and coordination
- Difficulty thinking and solving problems
- Impaired memory
The documented long-term effects of marijuana include:
- Impaired school performance and ability to learn and perform complex tasks. This can result in higher school dropout rates.
- Increased risk of domestic violence
- Antisocial behaviour such as lying and stealing.
- Greater chance of unemployment
- May cause aggravation of breathing problem when smoked. These effects include cough, increased phlegm, and a higher risk of lung infection.
- May cause a higher risk of schizoaffective disorders in susceptible individuals but evidence that it actually causes schizophrenia and psychosis is less than convincing.
Marijuana also has some potential beneficial effects including:
- Reduction in the pressures within the eyes. This property was utilized by Professor Manley West and Dr. Albert Lockhart working at the University of the West Indies to create the eye drop, Canasol and Cantimol which are used to treat glaucoma.
- Appetite stimulation (used in cancer patients who have anorexia and AIDS patients with severe weight loss).
- Reduction in pain and muscle spasm (also used in cancer patients and patients with neurologic disorders such as multiple sclerosis).
- Reduction in nausea. This property was also utilized by Professor West and Dr. Lockhart as they develop Canavert for the treatment of motion sickness. Marijuana may also be used for intractable nausea from other causes such as chemotherapy.
- May cause bronchodilation. This property was used by Professor West and Dr. Lockhart in the development of Asmasol.
The decriminalization of marijuana should provide a stimulus for further research into the beneficial uses of marijuana. It should allow us to research the long-term negative effects of marijuana such as the effects on our lungs. It should also allow us to reap the benefits of the reputation of Jamaican marijuana. However, the discussions seem to have taken a turn for the worse, with the rhetoric focusing more on outselling our competitors without due consideration for potential adverse effects on our people, especially our youth. The National Council on Drug Abuse has long been monitoring the effect of drugs like marijuana, on our people. For anyone to impugn their work or to try to discredit their findings is not only ignorant but dangerous. Colorado has also been grappling with increased use of marijuana by teens and an increase in marijuana-intoxicated driving. We cannot be found guilty of chasing profit at the expense of the health of our people.
Persons highlight that marijuana is safer than alcohol, but there is enough evidence to suggest that marijuana use dulls reflexes and impairs judgement and concentration. There are laws in place to prohibit the abuse of alcohol by minors. There is a legal limit and a rapid test that can be used to detect whether a person is above that legal limit while operating a car or other heavy machinery. The policy on marijuana needs to also establish the safe levels for operating machinery, since it may impact on reaction times. There should also be wide availability of a rapid test that can be administered and the findings used by the police to charge a person with impaired driving. The policy must also facilitate and encourage the extraction of the useful components of marijuana for medicinal use. The industry must be regulated and taxed as with alcohol and tobacco and consideration given to the channelling of the proceeds into health care and health research.
Any policy that promulgates the legalization of even small quantities of marijuana for recreational or medicinal use must be accompanied by a major public education campaign that highlights both the positive and negative effects of marijuana. There must also be training for health care workers so that we can safely prescribe the drug for proper indications and monitor the effects. It must be made clear that decriminalization must lead to greater regulations if we are to prevent abuse. It cannot be a free for all. The policy framework must expressly prohibit the use of marijuana by minors and provide stiff penalties for those found guilty of providing it to minors and sanctions/penalties for minors caught using it. These sanctions need not involve custodial sentences or impact on their police records, provided they are not severely and repeatedly breaking the laws. The impact of use and abuse by pregnant mothers must be highlighted and be subject of additional research. Even with all that is at stake financially, the safety of our people is of paramount importance, especially that of our children.
Medical Association of Jamaica, 19a Windsor Avenue, Kingston 5
Tel: (876) 946-1105-7 Fax: (876) 946-1102