DARK VIEW FALLS, St. Vincent -- Deep-green marijuana plants grow along roadsides, in front yards and on plantations hidden in the mountainous interior of this lush island — and the spliff bar is just a stone’s throw from the police station.
Inside the camouflaged business, a group of men smoke $1.15 joints between sips of beer while inviting visitors, with a slight smile and raised chin, to take a hit. Steps away in a back room, two men share a joint as they stuff cured cannabis into tiny plastic bags.
Here and across the Caribbean, marijuana is illegal, yet it is widely used, freely sold and openly puffed. It’s evidence of the shifting attitudes over pot. Now, for the first time, Caribbean leaders — much like a growing number of American and Latin American lawmakers — are considering loosening restrictions to control and capitalize on the popular crop.
“Marijuana is the new 21st century banana,” St. Vincent Foreign Minister Camillo Gonsalves said, likening the forbidden substance to the Caribbean’s last great cash crop, as regional leaders met behind closed doors here last month to consider whether to change their laws.
On the table is everything from decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana for recreational and religious use, to cultivating it for medicinal purposes. In doing so, Caribbean leaders are seeking to transform a seedy, underground economy into a source of taxable revenue.
The proposed shift comes as Floridians prepare to vote in November on a constitutional amendment to allow the medical use of marijuana, and Colorado reports collecting roughly $2 million in taxes on $14 million in recreational medical marijuana sales in January.
“It’s an idea whose time has come,” said St. Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, who as current chairman of the 15-member Caribbean Community, has been leading the call for “a mature, intelligent conversation” on medical marijuana and decriminalization. “We cannot continue, frankly, with the drug policies we have had over the years.”
Those policies, championed by the United States, have failed to curtail the use of marijuana, which is widely popular throughout the Caribbean where poor, underdeveloped governments have struggled with the criminal impact of the marijuana trafficking trade.
Still, there are hurdles. As the United Nations plans a special session in 2016 on the world’s growing drug problem, a contentious debate on marijuana policies is taking place, with advocates of continued drug prohibition accusing countries of ignoring U.N. drug treaties.
One U.N.-affiliated agency earlier this month even called the government of Uruguay “pirates” for its trailblazing decision to fully legalize pot by overseeing its production, sales and consumption.
For its part, the U.S. is quietly watching the decriminalization discussions unfolding around the region, including in Mexico and Guatemala.
“We, the United States government, believe legalization is not a panacea for the drug problem,” said a State Department spokesman who noted that the federal government still regards marijuana among the most dangerous substances despite what’s happening in individual states. “Evidence suggests legalized cannabis is detrimental to public health and will not improve public safety.”
Gonsalves and some leaders aren’t so sure. They have commissioned a study on the social, legal and public health impact on their societies, and the report is expected at their July meeting.
Domestically, the issue has ignited passionate debate in the region’s sun-bleached territories where the public and even those most likely to benefit from a policy change — the growers — are divided. A government poll shows Vincentians are evenly split on allowing marijuana for medicinal and religious purposes.
“What price will the government pay for a pound of the herb?” asked Fitzroy Francois, 50, a grower in rural Dark View Falls, touting the plant’s medicinal benefits for treating asthma, epilepsy and heart problems as he examined a hybrid tree growing in a friend’s yard.
A few miles south in neighboring Rose Bank, grower Aaron John, 21, opposes legalization. He is worried, he said, that the increased competition would spark violence as prices fall and growers can’t make a living.
These days, there is so much pot on the market that growers are finding it difficult to command even the $115 a pound they usually charge, John said.
“Right now, people try to help one another,” said John, 21, who has been farming marijuana since age 11.
Inside a Rose Bank spliff bar, the debate continues as a half-dozen growers, smoking joints, split on the issue. Their community has survived, they say, because of marijuana cultivation. Ganja, as it is called here, has schooled children, built homes and allowed residents to survive the economic fallout from the once profitable banana industry.
“Why are we not cashing in on the money? Why are we going to sit back and be penalized?” Conroy St. Hilaire said, trying to convince growers as he dropped in for a smoke. “America doesn’t want us to export it to them, so why don’t we try and get the people to come here and spend their money? Makes sense to me.”
Some 1,120 miles to the west in Jamaica, advocates also see tremendous tourism and economic benefits.
The country is already synonymous with pot smokers due to its Rastafari movement and reggae music icon Bob Marley. The global figure glorified the smoking of “herb,” as he called it, on album covers; decried the fate of hunted ganja growers in songs like I Shot the Sheriff; and once famously said, “Herb is the healing of a nation , alcohol is the destruction.”
But while polls show huge support among Jamaicans for medicinal marijuana, barely half favor removing criminal penalties.
“It remains a very vexing and contentious issue, but the public opinion is certainly shifting, and the broad level of political support is building certainly for medical marijuana and, in some quarters, decriminalization for personal use and religious sacrament,” said Wendel Abel, a professor of psychiatry at the University of the West Indies Mona, who has studied the issue for more than 20 years.
Abel said the growing popularity of marijuana legislation in the United States has sent a strong signal to Jamaica, where a marijuana commission was first set up in 2001, and the country has allowed two marijuna-based prescription drugs for 30 years.
And while Jamaica’s technology minister has said its parliament could decriminalize small amounts of marijuana before the end of this year, some feel the country isn’t moving quickly enough. On Saturday, supporters of medicinal marijuana will launch the Ganja Future Growers and Producers Association to lobby for a legal framework for its cultivation, processing and export.
“We are promoting taxing, education, regulating and controlling the new ganja regime. We want an organized, regulated, legalized industry that would also include persons involved in the exportation of the drugs,” said Delano Seiveright , a member of the association, which boasts a number of high-profile advocates including professors and lawyers.
Abel said any policy shift needs to include drug treatment programs and public education campaigns targeted at minors. University of the West Indies research, he said, shows that cannabis can be harmful to individuals between 15 and 25, when the brain is still developing. Also, across the Caribbean, many people start smoking marijuana between the ages of 12 and 14, Abel said.
So why advocate for loosening the reins?
“Jamaica has had some of the harshest legislation in the world in terms of marijuana use, and the harsh legislation has never served to decrease use in the country,” Abel said.
Junior “Spirit” Cottle, 63, a self-described advocate of the ganja man in St. Vincent, said he, too, opposes pot-smoking by minors. And while he isn’t completely against legislation, he said, the priority for now should be decriminalization.
“Too many of our youths are ending up in prisons and become criminals because it’s not decriminalized,” he said.
Cottle worries that legalization will push out poor farmers who have kept St. Vincent’s economy afloat through the illicit growing and sales.
“It means we are going to take that industry out of the hands of the ordinary persons and allow a few individuals to control it or monopolize it,” he said.
But Empress Modupe Olufunmi-Jacobs and husband Ras Laurent B. Jacobs say full legalization is the only way to go. Their Inivershall Rastafari Movement organization in Kingstown supports using ganja for religious sacrament and a variety of other purposes.
“Marijuana is profitable, whether it’s legal or illegal,” Laurent Jacobs said. “Once you are growing good quality marijuana, you will make money.”