Cannabis in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines: The Perspective of a Traditional Grower An opinion piece by Junior Spirit Cottle

The government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) recently introduced a set of bills decriminalising cannabis for medical and scientific purposes. Amid heated debates surrounding the future of cannabis policy in SVG and the wider region, traditional cannabis grower Junior Spirit Cottle shares his insights on the subject through the following opinion piece, which was published by a local newspaper The News on 7 December 2018. An active participant of both the Barcelona and Heemskerk Global Forum of Producers of Prohibited Plants, Spirit has also been part of TNI’s Advocacy Fellowship for Farmers Leaders.

Cannabis Bills, 2018 - The Perspective of a Traditional Grower In discussing issues of cannabis, I always like to begin from the premise of the traditional grower, from the premise of that class of people who earn their livelihood by their illicit engagement in the plant, be it as a grower, a boat man, a smuggler, or the brother or sister who sells cannabis on the blocks, mainly in and around our urban communities. Because that’s where I’ve belong for the past forty-five odd years.   With the announcement by the government of SVG to make medical cannabis legal, the struggles surrounding cannabis have taken a different turn. Perhaps this is best captured in Jomo’s article in Vincentian, dated 30th November, 2018, “You know the world is changing when those who at every turn embrace your cause and attempt to adopt it as their own. They may even try to deny that you ever championed what they now embrace on the hussle”. Thanks Jomo!   The issues of contention surrounding this move towards move are based primarily around the following:   1. That only foreign investors and a small privilege few stand to benefit from this industry   That’s a lie! The reality is, we will be building an export oriented industry, with the participation of foreigners, who perhaps know best what the market requires, and, who, unlike our locals, have the monies, as well as the scientific know how, required to do so.   In addition, the law gives traditional cultivators the legal right to cultivate medical cannabis on premises up to five acre per traditional cultivator. And, according to Clause 58, section 5 of the draft, “The authority shall through alliances with other local entities and in an effort to facilitate the licensing process provide such technical assistance to traditional cultivators.” Clause 58 section 6 also says, “The authority shall also promote the development of medical cannabis projects with traditional cultivators who may require such assistance as a substitute mechanism for the growth of illicit cannabis.”   Indeed, Cabinet has gone as far as to establish a special committee headed by the Hon Minister of Lands Mongomery Daniel, and include the Chief Surveyor, to look into making lands available to traditional cultivators. These positions have been taken, thanks in a large way to the intervention of reps of the Church of Nyabinghi and CRC at the level of the Select Committee.    Then, there is the Amnesty Law. This law is intended to put some well needed monies in the hands of the traditional cultivator by allowing him/her to legally sell his existing crop and to cultivate cannabis for one year to sell to exporting investors for the extraction of oils for medicines.    So the benefits go well beyond foreign investors.    2. That a medical cannabis industry, without decriminalization/recreation, will not work. It will not, as a solution, because the ultimate must be total legalization, which hinges on other things.   Well, if the absence of decriminalization is the reason for opposition towards the Medical cannabis bill, the opponents need to think again. In the first place, they are not helping traditional cultivators, whom they profess to want to, by so doing. Yes, it is important to advance the cause, but let it not be to the disadvantage of our traditional cultivators. And that’s a fundamental difference between me and them. They do not see the interrelation between the two, and the importance of strategy in going forward.  One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to allow our thoughts to operate in a vacuum.  My own thoughts on the recreational issue is guided by certain existing facts, and are driven by what prevail at a given moment.   The prevailing ones:
  • The conventions of the UN on narcotic drugs disallows decriminalization, and contravening them carries the risk of international sanctions.
  • Traditional cultivators are faced with severe economic hardship, which has the potential of serious social fall out to the disadvantage of our people and nation.
  • Growers are protected by law, which also compelled foreign investors to purchase, at least one tenth of their export from traditional cultivators.
  • Pole results show that while there is broad unity among our population on the move to medical cannabis, there is deep disunity amongst them on decriminalization, a factor to the detriment of the unity of our people and nation. 
  • Medical cannabis creates a spring board for a deepen of the process towards total legalization.
  • And last, but not least, decriminalization, if not carefully thought out, can lead to a small privilege minority controlling the decriminalized market.
Now, I want to focus on the latter, because it is behind this issue of recreational smoking that the mainstream opponents of a medical cannabis industry, without decriminalization, is masquerading  as they attempt to undermine the process for party political and other selfish means, while claiming to defend the interest of traditional cultivators.  
But we must ask ourselves the question: will decriminalization make the traditional cultivator better or worst off?   While traditional cultivators are the cornerstone of the production, distribution and the consumption of cannabis, a modern medical industry will be a disaster, unless we guarantee a satisfactory space, not only for the grower, the trafficker, the boat man, but also for the recreational smoker, who historically has always been there for the grower, by purchasing his produce, and who has played a pivotal role in bringing cannabis to where it has reached today.   They are natural allies, and, as such, has a moral and a social obligation to look out for each other, even if it requires some level of compromise from each.   You know, if we examine the issue of decriminalization with all its restrictions, the prospect of this making the traditional cultivator better or worst off here, weigh largely on the latter. Within this context are issues like age limit, where people can or cannot smoke, the issuing of licenses to sell cannabis within established rules, certain level of accommodation, etc. And there is the issue of every household being allowed to two or more plants.   Against this background, we must remember that recreational smokers go for the grade with the highest THC. High grade cannabis require high grade seeds. But seeds are expensive and are currently sourced overseas, most often beyond the reach of the ordinary grower.    This is going to hurt the pockets of the traditional cultivator, and will be potentially more threatening to our local seeds, which will now be faced with competition from the importation of foreign strains.  Commercially these strains are more attractive, and can only be afforded by a privilege few, who will now have the opportunity to control the local market. The better off classes who previously would send to the BLOCKS for their weed no longer need to, since each household can now grow two plants, with the potential of producing up to three pounds per house hold. This is more than they can consume.  Now they can sell their own high grade, and because they are able to afford the licensing and other requirements, will be doing so within a framework that will not be as easily accessible to the ordinary grower.    This is the model that will predominate, as it attracts the monies of the tourist, and the monied classes. What therefore should be the response of our traditional cultivator?  I am certain that some of the opponents of medical cannabis are genuine and mean good, and so we must seek to identify and to reach out to those who mean well. But there are those who do so for their own selfish reasons and in an effort to keep traditional growers in subjugation. Likewise, we must seek to identify them, but expose them as traitors of traditional cultivators and enemies of progress. The traditional cultivator and the recreational smoker are allies in the struggle for cannabis reform, and in the same way that it took the unity of both stakeholders to reach this far, in the same way it will take their unity for the satisfaction of all.   Against this background, and in the best interest of both the traditional cultivator and the recreational smoker, we must navigate a way forward, bearing in mind all of the above factors.     I find that better way in the proposed bill being discussed by the Select Committee, for a non custodial sentence if caught with up to two ounces of cannabis, without contravening the UN conventions, though personally I would have preferred to see more.   Decriminalization, ultimately, must go hand in hand with fundamental socio economic changes in the society, if it to be in the best interest of the traditional cultivator.   As traditional cultivators, and guided by the surrounding circumstances relative to cannabis, we cannot just think of ourselves, but also of our own friends and allies – particular our recreational brothers and sisters.    In conclusion, I believe that this fight can best be waged by uniting our efforts at both the national and international level, that is to say, by building a strong international network, with like minded governments and NGO communities, to take the fight to the level of the UN, with the aim of reforming the conventions in the best interest of all nations and people.   STOP THE CRIMINALIZATION OF ALL NON MEDICAL USERS OF CANNABIS. STOP THE CRIMINALIZATION OF TRADITIONAL CULTIVATORS FOR PRODUCING CANNABIS FOR NON MEDICAL USERS.     Junior Spirit Cottle   This article was originally published by a local newspaper The News on 7 December 2018.

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