Legalisation of Marijuana debated at CTO’s Conference

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“Proceed with an abundance of caution” that was the advice that was given to Caribbean Tourism stakeholders at the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s State of the Industry Conference that was held in St. Thomas on Friday 19 September regarding marijuana. The advice was given during a panel discussion session that was organized to explore the pros and cons of decriminalizing or even legalizing marijuana in the Caribbean for medical or recreational use.

The hot debate to examine the prospects of marijuana tourism in the Caribbean attracted hundreds of tourism experts, and CTO members; and was attended by the Director of the BVI Tourist Board, Sharon Flax-Mars.

The event came on the heels of heated informal marijuana conversations throughout the region, especially since the boom of the medical marijuana industry in countries like the United States of America. The well organized discussions were held from 17 – 19 September at the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef and Morning Star Resort in St. Thomas USVI. They were part of the CTO State of the Industry Conference that was organized in collaboration with the USVI Department of Tourism; and featured speakers of international and regional acclaim from various fields linked to tourism.

In his presentation Dr. James Hospedales, the Executive Director of the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) advised stakeholded to think carefully about the legalization of marijuana. In fact, he began his presentation with an advisory: “Proceed with an abundance of caution, given the significant adverse effects of cannabis smoking on health and social and occupational functioning, and especially so among youth.”

Dr. Hospedales in highlighting the social impact the legalization of marijuana stated that a study shows that Caribbean school children use marijuana more than students in other regions use tobacco: “If we focus on youth for a moment, the latest data on drug use among secondary school students in 12 Caribbean countries has recently been published by the Inter-American Observatory on Drugs (OID).”

“The report, launched at the fourth biennial meeting of Caribbean Drug Observatories in Port of Spain (2011), offers a comprehensive, regional analysis of drug use in this group. The findings demonstrate that even though the countries have similar histories, the dimensions of drug use are quite unique to each country. While alcohol and marijuana are the main drugs of use, patterns still vary widely from country to country. Compared to other regions, however, the prevalence of marijuana use in the school population in the Caribbean is high, and in some countries, higher than that of tobacco use,” he said.

Pointing to the complaint about the incarceration of many youths for drug possession, and the argument that legalization can relieve this, the expert announced that it is still not sufficient reason for legalization: “I can also see the negative societal effects being caused by jailing thousands of young people, especially young men, for using marijuana, from which they get a criminal record, and can face long-term employment difficulties. But the health consequences are such that any decision to decriminalize possession would be a political one; we can only put forward the medical and public health evidence,” Dr. Hospedales stated.

The CARPHA Executive Director ended his presentation with a warning: “From a public health point of view, I repeat what I said at the beginning, proceed with an abundance of caution, given the significant adverse effects of cannabis smoking on health, and social and occupational functioning, and especially so among youth.”

The debate has been described as opportune following the legalization of the substance for recreational use by two US states, including Colorado. Uruguay has also become the first country in the world to make it legal to grow, sell and consume cannabis.

“Since it became legal to smoke marijuana in Colorado at the start of the year, there have been several reports of a boom in arrivals from both within and outside the United States. The Colorado office of state planning and budgeting reported US$19 million in tax revenue from recreational marijuana during the first half of the year, although it didn’t say how much of that was from tourism versus local buyers,” a CTO  release announced.

“The Caribbean has an interest in this subject, the Caribbean has an interest in attracting visitors to our shores, and so medical tourism, including the discussion about marijuana, is going to be one of the parts of the debate that we have. One of the interesting aspects of that particular debate is looking at the medical evidence because it’s important that we do not look at one particular aspect. At the end of the day we have to make decisions that are in the best interest of the people of the Caribbean,” said Hugh Riley, the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO)’s secretary general.

“We can pretend it doesn’t exist and the rest of the world isn’t talking about it, or we can deal with it head on, debate it, look at the facts and then move on to the next action,” he added.

The session was led by Richard Kildare, the deputy CEO of Jamaica’s first medical ganja company, MediCanja, and Josef Woodman, the CEO and founder of Patients Beyond Borders.  Also on the panel was Rory Johnston, a PhD student at the faculty of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Canada, who presented a paper on the ethical and legal implications, as well as the risks associated with medical tourism.

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