Can Jamaica make up for lost ground in cannabis research following decriminalisation?

Explore similar themes
Politics & economyJamaica Health

Following the partial decriminalisation of cannabis earlier this year, Jamaican scientists are harnessing more than 40 years of research in a bid to cash in on the lucrative global medical marijuana market.

As of April 2015, the possession of two ounces of marijuana, or less, is no longer an arrestable offence in Jamaica and the establishment of a Cannabis Licensing Authority is paving the way for the development of a set of rules and regulations to govern this burgeoning pharmaceutical industry, estimated to be worth US$100 billion worldwide.

As a result, marijuana researchers on the island are hoping to develop new pharmaceutical products, almost four decades after several new medicines were developed and subsequently launched on the international market.

“We are not talking about smoking ganja (cannabis), we are looking to produce medicines that will help people,” Courtney Betty, Attorney at Law and head of Timeless Herbal Care Limited (THC), told Equal Times from his base in Canada.

Since 1972, Jamaican scientists at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Department of Pharmacology have studied the properties of cannabis, developing a number of pioneering products, including: Canasol, and later Cantivert, to treat glaucoma; Asmasol for asthma; and Canavert for motion sickness.

The products are successfully used in the Caribbean, Europe and Asia but remain illegal in the US because their active ingredient comes from cannabis sativa, one of three varieties of the cannabis plant.

“We (Jamaicans) were the pioneers in research of cannabis for commercial medical purposes in the 1970s, releasing Canasol in 1987,” said Dr Henry Lowe who owns several patents for medicinal products derived from cannabis and other local plants. His company, Medicanja, has already established state-of-the-art research facilities at UWI and will release several products next year, reviving the Cannabis Research Institute he and colleagues started in 2001.


Long overdue

It has been a long, slow walk to decriminalisation in Jamaica. Not long before researchers began exploring the beneficial properties of sensi weed, Jamaica’s most exalted strain of cannabis, the signing of the 1961 UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs criminalised the possession of ganja, which has been used as traditional medicine for generations in Jamaica.

A National Commission on Ganja was convened in September 2000. It noted evidence of the “therapeutic properties” of cannabis and concluded that “there is no doubt that ganja can have harmful effects, these do not warrant the criminalisation of thousands of Jamaicans for using it in ways and with beliefs that are deeply rooted in the culture of the people”.

The reforms, passed by parliament on 6 February 2015 on the birthday of the late reggae superstar Bob Marley, and ratified on 15 April 2015, were “long overdue” according to the country’s Justice Minister Mark Golding.

Subsequently, both UWI and the University of Technology (UTECH) have started their own cannabis projects. UWI has established Jamaica’s first legal cannabis plot, growing specific strains of the plant in a bid to identify DNA profiles of cannabis, to determine how various strains react with the human body and to identify best practises for growing cannabis, as well as to develop products in the treatment of various illnesses and diseases.

UTECH will collaborate with the Colorado-based US firm Ganja Labs [editor’s note: In January 2014, Colorado became the first place in the world to fully regulate the legal, recreational use of marijuana for adults] to research and experiment on new marijuana-based pharmaceuticals at a laboratory and greenhouse at their main campus in the capital city, Kingston.

With the new law allowing households to grow up to five plants, ordinary Jamaicans are looking to cash in, too.

No longer will small amounts mean jail and a criminal record. And Rastafarians can freely use ganja for sacramental purposes for the first time since the founding of their movement in the 1930s.

For investors like Betty, a Jamaican-Canadian, the new law could “transform” the economy of this debt-ridden island, bringing prosperity to its 2.7 million-strong population: “Jamaica provides unlimited access to raw materials at a very good cost, and the knowledge. We believe this is a significant industry that has tremendous economic impact,” he said.

In September, Betty announced a US$100 million investment in Jamaica to develop medicinal cannabis products for the international market, some of which will hit the market this year.

Given its more than 40 years headstart, Jamaica could quickly exceed the earnings made by the state of Colorado, Betty told Equal Times. In 2014, Colorado earned US$700 million in marijuana sales from which the government took US$76 million in taxes and fees.

Lowe, who continues to seek new investors for Medicanja (which will announce its latest patents for nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals in November) noted that Jamaica could become the international hub for cannabis research.

“Jamaica is ahead of the world. This opens opportunity in the areas of healthcare, and the production of high quality products for a variety of complaints,” he said.