KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — Jamaican lawmakers on Tuesday night passed an act to decriminalize small amounts of pot and establish a licensing agency to regulate a lawful medical marijuana industry on the Caribbean island.
After several hours of debate, legislators in the lower House on Tuesday gave final passage to drug law amendments that make possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana a petty offense that would not result in a criminal record. Cultivation of five or fewer plants on any premises would be permitted in Jamaica, where the drug has long been culturally entrenched but illegal.
The law paves the way for a "cannabis licensing authority" to be set up to deal with regulations on cultivation and distribution of marijuana for medical, scientific and therapeutic purposes.
Rastafarians can also legally use marijuana now for religious purposes for the first time on the tropical island, where the spiritual movement was founded in the 1930s. And tourists who are prescribed medical marijuana abroad will soon be able to apply for permits at a cost authorizing them to legally buy small amounts of Jamaican weed, or "ganja" as it is known locally.
Peter Bunting, the island's national security minister, said authorization of the law does not mean that Jamaican government plans to soften its stance on transnational drug trafficking or cultivation of illegal plots.
"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 our international treaty obligations," Bunting said in Parliament.
William Brownfield, the U.S. assistant secretary for counter-narcotics affairs, told The Associated Press days before the Tuesday vote that "Jamaican law is of course Jamaica's own business, and Jamaica's sovereign decision." But he noted that the trafficking of marijuana into the U.S. remains against the law.
"We expect that Jamaica and all states party to the U.N. Drug Conventions will uphold their obligations, including a firm commitment to combating and dismantling criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking," he told AP.
For decades, debate has raged in Jamaica over relaxing laws prohibiting ganja. Previous efforts to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana have been scuttled because officials feared they would violate international treaties and bring sanctions from Washington.
But emboldened by changes to drug laws in other countries, Jamaican officials now have high hopes that the island could become a player in the nascent medical marijuana industry, health tourism and the development of innovative pot-derived items. Local scientists already have a history of creating marijuana-derived products, such as "Canasol," which helps relieve pressure in the eyes of glaucoma patients.
On Tuesday, Commerce Minister Anthony Hylton said the industry holds "great potential" for Jamaica, which is laboring under its latest loan program with the International Monetary Fund.
The Tuesday move by Jamaican lawmakers adds to an international trend of easing restrictions on marijuana for medical or personal use. More than 20 U.S. states allow some form of medical marijuana and last year Colorado and Washington legalized personal use. On Tuesday, Alaska became the third U.S. state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults.
In the Americas, Uruguay last year became the first nation to create a legal marijuana market. Other countries in the region have made similar moves to Jamaica. In Argentina, personal possession of marijuana was decriminalized under a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that jail time for small amounts of drugs violates the country's constitution.
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