The War on Drugs: "See it deh now"
While Dominica's Ministry of Health observed its 11th Drug Awareness Month in January and officials called on the general public to make greater efforts at curbing the use, sale and abuse of illicit as well as legal drugs, many countries around the world were galloping ahead towards the decriminalisation of marijuana.
Unfortunately, it is true that when the United States of America sneezes Caribbean catches the flu. Hence, Dominican society must note that a few major developments have occurred in the United States in relation to the unending war on drugs. Here are the facts. In December 2013 Washington State celebrated the legalisation of marijuana cigarettes. Now Washingtonians 21 and older can legally light up in public or eat buns and cake or drink tea laced with ganja. In January Colorado became the first American state to fully legalise the drug. Undoubtedly other states will follow these examples within the next few years and like the copycats that we are, we will, unquestionably, take the plunge. In fact there's been renewed calls in Jamaica for the legalisation and export of marijuana from no other source that the conservative Gleaner Newspaper. In an editorial dated December 7, 2012 entitled: "Allow free trade in marijuana", the Gleaner opined that Jamaica should be positioning itself to capitalize on these developments in the US and to take advantage of Jamaica's reputation as ganja country.
"There is no doubt that the Jamaica brand is hot," the paper stated. "Ganja could find a niche, like Blue Mountain coffee." The Gleaner had the audacity to suggest that the national export agency, JAMPRO, should encourage ganja product development and lobby the US to end its prohibition of the trade.
It has also been hinted that Latin American countries such as Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica and others have held press conferences in reaction to the Washington and Colorado initiatives and that these countries are at the forefront of initiatives calling on the US to end its ban on marijuana imports. Additionally, Gleaner columnist Dennis Quill suggested in an article that he called "See it deh now" that many Caribbean countries seem to be taking note of the Colorado law and are reacting with changes of their own. Guatemala, for instance, has proposed the decriminalization of certain drugs and Uruguay is poised to vote on a Bill to legalise the cultivation and distribution of marijuana. Given the poor state of the economies of regional states, you can almost hear leaders like Portia Simpson Miller or Ralph Gonsalves, as well as Rastafarians, whisper: "Thanks Jah".
This reminds us that eccentric local politician, Pappy Baptiste, for many years now has been shouting in his megaphone, as he drives around Roseau in a yellow car, that if Dominicans vote him into government his first act will be to allow the cultivation and export of ganja. We've been laughing at Pappy but in retrospect he seems to have had an uncanny vision of the future as far as that issue is concerned.
Unfortunately the minister of health made no mention of these developments when he addressed the nation on the opening of Drug Awareness Month in early January. Honourable Julius Timothy thought the theme: "My Country, My Choice: No Drugs" was appropriate and timely given the prevalence of drug abuse among young people. He called it a public health concern. We agree. There is much evidence to support that view. For instance, Pernel Charles, a research specialist of the Inter-American Observatory on Drugs has concluded that Dominican secondary schools are the leading institutions in the Caribbean for alcohol abuse. Charles' research, conducted in 2006, also indicated that 80 % of students frequently abuse alcohol and marijuana. What is more, the statistics show that Dominica is the leading country in the Caribbean, surpassing Jamaica and St. Vincent where the drug is grown abundantly.
Of course the key to the control of drugs in the region is solely within the control of the United States. As an America newspaper columnist wrote recently: the drug crisis of Latin American is a crisis of American behaviour, of appetites produced by bad attitudes. Americans have created the insatiable demand that drug barons in Latin America have organised themselves to satisfy, using Dominica's extremely porous borders as trans-shipment points.
In the process Dominica's economy has become extremely dependent on the drug trade. It is thought that millions of dollars in illegal foreign exchange continues to flow into the economy despite the tightening of money laundering laws and stricter banking practices. But the economic benefits of drugs are not as worrying as the societal impact of the trade. In many parts of our nation drug dealers are socially acceptable; there is no stigma associated with the practice anymore. Society, therefore, is losing not only the supply and demand aspects of the war on drugs but the psychological one as well.
Because of the hopelessness of the drug situation, experts have questioned the policy on drugs. Synchronized with America policy, the war on drugs in the Caribbean has meant forced restrictions and military action against sources of supply. These experts argue that that policy keeps drug prices extremely high and thus market forces dictate criminals will risk anything to gain large profits.
Because of the failure of the policy, sociologists, in particular, have suggested the adoption of the Dutch approach to drug control which places restrictions on both supply and demand while permitting a liberal approach to soft drugs. It means, therefore, that although prohibitive measures are in force, low priority is given to possession of small quantities. The focus is placed on medical care for the users and severe punishment for the merchants of drugs. In Dominica, the emphasis is on criminalizing everyone caught with the smallest joint while the mighty and well- connected get richer through dealing in drugs. Former Magistrate Tiyani Behanzin made that point succinctly at a panel discussion on "Drugs, Crime and You" held at Bath Estate a couple of years ago. He said: "There is a core who finances the drug trade in this place. These people sit inside government offices, they sit inside churches and they praise the highest hallelujahs; they finance the drug trade and those are the people we have to deal with."
We therefore argue that our current policy on drug control and consumption has failed miserably. It is time for society to consider alternative ways of tackling the problem. But we are not convinced that mimicking the US is a solution to our drug problems.