Jamaica May Legalize Marijuana

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) - In the heart of Kingston, about a dozen men stand in an open-air emporium stacking long buds of marijuana even though the crop is illegal in Jamaica.

``High-grade, the best ... smell it,'' says a dreadlocked 27-year-old Rastafarian at the ``Luke Lane'' market, who gives his name only as Toro as he holds a bud in the air and beckons to a passer-by. Sale completed, he lights a joint of rolled marijuana and smiles.

These days, he has a lot to be happy about.

A government commission recommended Thursday that marijuana be legalized for personal use by adults - a move the government will likely endorse despite opposition from the United States, which has spent millions to eradicate the crop on the Caribbean island.

``(Marijuana's) reputation among the people as a panacea and a spiritually enhancing substance is so strong that it must be regarded as culturally entrenched,'' said the commission's report.

The National Commission on Ganja - as marijuana is known here - also said Jamaica should allow the use of marijuana for religious purposes. This is important to the Rastafarian minority, who worship deceased Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie as a prophet and use marijuana as a sacrament.

Prime Minister P.J. Patterson last year appointed the commission, which included academics and doctors. So far, he and elected officials have not publicly commented on the report. But Ralston Smith, an aide to Patterson, said: ``My gut feeling is that the commission's recommendations will be followed.''

Any change in existing drug laws would have to be approved by Parliament. And legalization, even for personal use, could cause friction with the United States and violate the 1988 U.N. Convention Against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Jamaica signed the accord.

``The U.S. opposes the decriminalization of marijuana,'' Michael Koplovsky, a U.S. Embassy spokesman, said Thursday.

Over the last 20 years, the United States has worked with Jamaica to burning marijuana fields and carry out other anti-drug efforts. It has also provided aid to fight drug trafficking in Jamaica, the Caribbean's largest marijuana exporter and a major transshipment point for cocaine bound for Europe and South America.

The commission addressed these concerns in its report, urging the government to ``embark on diplomatic initiatives ... to elicit support for its internal position and influence the international community to re-examine the status of cannabis.''

Between 1992-98, the United States provided $7.8 million to Jamaica to eliminate marijuana production and trafficking. The most popular method has been to chop down the plants and burn the fields.

Indian indentured servants are thought to have brought marijuana to Jamaica in the 19th century. Its use as a medicinal herb spread rapidly among plantation workers, with some using ganja tea to alleviate aches, and others using rum-soaked marijuana as remedy for coughs and fevers.

But it was not until the 1960s and 1970s, with the rise to popularity of Bob Marley and other reggae icons, that marijuana began to gain acceptance outside poor neighborhoods.

Marijuana's deep roots were clear in Luke Lane after word spread of the commission's recommendation. Among the patrons was 43-year-old Horace Clarke, who was also buying school supplies for his three children.

``At night, when the children are sleeping, sometimes I smoke a little with my lady,'' Clarke said as he bought a quarter ounce for about $2.50.

The vendors were pleased at the possibility the it might be legal to use marijuana, even though selling the drug would remain illegal.

All had stories of being chased by the police, ``If you're going to smoke it, you have to get it and we sell it,'' said a dealer who gave his name only as Metro.

He said he earns about $100 on a good day.

``This money doesn't go out to buy guns, it goes to food that fills the bellies of my children and puts them in school clothes and pays their school fees,'' he said. ``What's criminal about that?''

AP-NY-08-17-01 1624EDT

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.