Jamaica's government announced plans on Thursday to relax its marijuana laws, in part by lowering the penalties against the possession of small amounts of pot.
Justice Minister Mark Golding stressed in a statement that the proposed changes are “not intended to promote or give a stamp of approval to the use of ganja for recreational purposes."
Like many officials who have presided over the decriminalization of pot in the United States, he presented the proposal as a way to ease the burdens that pot prohibition places on an overstretched criminal justice system.
"The objective is to provide a more enlightened approach," he said.
If lawmakers approve an amendment to the law, as expected, possession of less than 2 ounces of pot will become a “non-arrestable, ticketable infraction” that will not produce a criminal record. Under the current law, about 300 young men receive criminal records each week for possessing small amounts of marijuana, according to the Associated Press. The change will also allow Jamaicans to use ganja for medicinal, scientific and religious reasons.
Golding specifically noted that special measures will be taken to allow the smoking of ganja by Rastafarians in places designated for religious worship. Rastafarians have long advocated for the legalization of ganja. In 1976, the Rastafari reggae star Peter Tosh recorded a song called "Legalize It" that soon became the definitive anthem of the pro-marijuana movement. At the time, his call for reform was so radical that the Jamaican government banned the song from the airwaves.
In April, Bunny Wailer, a leader in the Rastafari movement and a legendary musician who sang alongside Tosh and Bob Marley, said by phone from his home in Kingston that he was excited about the possibility of decriminalization.
“Marijuana is one of those beautiful things where, if you don’t have it in your life, it’s not going to hurt, but I think everyone should have it in their life one way or another,” he said in his distinctive baritone. “I’m looking forward to the progressive future in this.”
Jamaica is one of about a dozen nations in the Caribbean and Latin America considering a range of legalization and decriminalization measures, thanks in large part to the widespread perception that the U.S. government under President Barack Obama has become less interested in fighting the war against pot.
Richard “Dickey” Crawford, a well-known Jamaican talk show host and a prominent supporter of marijuana reform, said the Obama administration’s decision last year not to interfere in the legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado has influenced the outlook of many Jamaican officials.
“Right now, the ancient hardboiled position of the United States of America is weakening, and that really basically has given some strength to the reluctant ones to come aboard,” he said.