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Jamaica rolls out legalised pot law


Legalisation advocate and reggae legend Bunny Wailer smokes a pipe stuffed with marijuana during a reasoning session in a yard in Kingston, Jamaica (AP)

Legalisation advocate and reggae legend Bunny Wailer smokes a pipe stuffed with marijuana during a reasoning session in a yard in Kingston, Jamaica (AP)

Legalisation advocate and reggae legend Bunny Wailer smokes a pipe stuffed with marijuana during a reasoning session in a yard in Kingston, Jamaica (AP)

Jamaica is to decriminalise 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, MPs in the lower house gave final passage to drug law amendments that make possession of up to 2oz of marijuana a petty offence 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 authorising 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 authorisation 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," he told parliament.

Before the vote, William Brownfield, US assistant secretary for counter-narcotics affairs, said: "Jamaican law is of course Jamaica's own business, and Jamaica's sovereign decision." But he noted that the trafficking of marijuana into America remained against the law.

"We expect that Jamaica and all states party to the UN Drug Conventions will uphold their obligations, including a firm commitment to combating and dismantling criminal organisations involved in drug trafficking," he said.

For decades, debate has raged in Jamaica over relaxing laws prohibiting ganja. Previous efforts to decriminalise 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.

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Local scientists already have a history of creating marijuana-derived products, such as Canasol, which helps relieve pressure in the eyes of glaucoma patients.

Commerce minister Anthony Hylton said the industry held "great potential" for Jamaica, which is labouring under its latest loan programme with the International Monetary Fund.

The move by MPs adds to an international trend of easing restrictions on marijuana for medical or personal use. More than 20 US states allow some form of medical marijuana and last year Colorado and Washington legalised personal use. Yesterday Alaska became became the third state to legalise 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 decriminalised under a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that jail time for small amounts of drugs violates the country's constitution.

Details of Jamaica's licensing authority and its hoped-for medical marijuana sector will need to be refined in coming months, but cannabis crusaders in the country applauded the amendments.

"This is a big step in the right direction, but there's still a lot of work to do," said Delano Seiveright, director of the Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Taskforce.

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