The tour bus pulls up in front of the “Legal Cannabis Sold Here” billboard at the entrance of the old Casa Blanca hotel along this resort town’s popular tourist strip, when a young woman looking for a smoke jumps out.
“This is it?” she asks, strolling through the venue’s cozy courtyard.
An employee starts escorting her past a red carpet and into the non-smoking Lounge 2727, where bartenders are pouring drinks, tourists are snapping selfies and reggae is playing in the background, when she stops and abruptly says: “No. We’re going to Island Strains.”
The employee motions to his right. The young woman heads to a secure door, shows her ID and waits to be buzzed in. Inside, she walks over to a corner where a medical practitioner, who isn’t even a doctor, poses a few questions and then, for $10, hands her a medical card that allows her to buy locally grown marijuana.
This is the medical marijuana experience in Jamaica, where permission to legally smoke takes all but five minutes. No local address needed. No medical record requested— not even a physical exam is required.
“Right now, this — this is a phenomenon,” Christopher “Birdheye” Gordon, the owner of Island Strains Herb House, said sitting inside the smoke room where patrons can consume cannabis on the spot, unlike in the U.S. where some states are only now pitching the idea of smoking lounges.
“Smoking indoors,” he explained, as he lit up his third joint under the surveillance of mandated security cameras, “it’s a phenomenon, it’s groundbreaking…. Jamaica is advanced in that sense.”
Two years after Jamaica began awarding cannabis licenses for medical, therapeutic and scientific uses, the first Caribbean country to decriminalize pot, or ganja, as it is known here, is still struggling to find its footing in the legal medical-marijuana sphere, and capitalize on the exploding global marijuana industry. But trying to regulate an industry that remains a mega black market and not run afoul of international anti-narcotics laws and Jamaica’s other international obligations means operating a lot in the gray.
The fear of a backlash from the U.S. and the United Nations — under a 1961 UN treaty that Jamaica signed, cannabis is considered a dangerous drug — critics and supporters say, has led to an over-abundance of caution: No one involved in the pot industry can use bank accounts, traditional growers face obstacles in supplying locally-grown weed for therapeutic oils and other products, and international firms are shut out despite a plethora of conferences touting the Jamaica cannabis experience.
“The regulations are very bureaucratic, very strict. We don’t have a banking regime, we don’t have the funding to support farmers, we don’t have our standards approved and we don’t have any export regulations,” said Paul Burke, program director of the Ganja Growers and Producers Association. “We’re still in our pioneer days. All of these contribute to dwarfing the industry.”
Under Jamaica’s 2015 amended drug legislation, individuals are allowed to possess up to two ounces of ganja— roughly 56 joints —without arrest or a criminal record. Households can also grow up to five plants for medical, therapeutic or horticultural purposes, and followers of the Rastafarian religion can use pot for sacramental purposes.
The law has led to the expunging of criminal records for thousands of young, mostly poor Jamaicans’ for possession of marijuana. It has also birthed local ventures such as Ganjagram, a mobile app that lets smokers know their rights, and herb houses..
At the herb houses tourists and locals pop down anywhere between $10 and $20 for a gram to about $420 per ounce of ganja with names like “Girl Scout Cookies,” “Train Wreck,” “First Lady,” and “Blue Cheese.”
On one hand, it is a very liberal cannabis environment. On the other, it’s a very strict one, in which authorities insist that the trafficking of weed, in and out of the island, continues to be prosecuted.
“We understand where we need to be when it comes to law and order,” said Delano Seiveright, director of the Cannabis Licensing Authority, which regulates the medical marijuana industry. “There are people who continue to grow ganja illegally all over Jamaica and the police continue to lock them up and the system continues to prosecute them.”
Last year, during a meeting in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the 15-member Caribbean Community, Caricom, finally issued its long awaited cannabis study. Leaders noted that while there was a groundswell of support and enthusiasm for reforming marijuana laws in their countries, the Caribbean risked being left behind as Canada and an increasing number of states in the U.S. allow for medical marijuana and in some cases legalize it for recreational use.
The report noted that in the case of Jamaica, where marijuana was first outlawed in 1913 after being introduced by East Indian indentured laborers, criminal arrests for ganja possession had decreased significantly and many skeptics had become converts. The current problem, however, relates to licensing arrangements.
Seiveright doesn’t dispute that. Of the 600 requests for cannabis licenses, the licensing authority has awarded less than 40 and given conditional approval to another 200, he said. Banking regulations, which keep ganja proceeds from being banked, is the primary reason for the low tally, Seiveright said.
Although Jamaica, a former British colony, is an independent country, its banks rely on U.S. banking partners to process U.S. dollar transactions. Concerns over anti-money laundering and lax Know-Your-Customer requirements have led some U.S. correspondent banks to end their international bank-to-bank relations with Caribbean and Central American banks over the years.
“Just like in the United States of America, the very rules that the banks abide by are having a negative impact on marijuana businesses, not just in Jamaica but all over the world,” Seiveright said. “There’s an inability of banks in Jamaica and elsewhere to open cannabis-related accounts even though some of these cannabis accounts would be legal under the laws of Jamaica.
“Even many of the fully licensed companies here in Jamaica literally have a major challenge in accessing banking services,” he added. “The issues with banking have to be resolved to address a lot of the problems we’re having and the solutions to banking do not lie with Jamaica, they lie outside of Jamaica.”
That’s not the only problem.
Burke said Jamaica lacks the technology, overseas expertise and research to be a major player in the medical marijuana field, where the environment is changing faster than governments can write legislation.
“There is not any funding for research in cannabis, so we are being left behind. As a country that was in the forefront of cannabis research in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, we are way, way down the line,” he said, referring to the ganja research program that started at University of the West Indies and was recently revived.
Floyd Green, Jamaica’s minister of state in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Agriculture, said the government is currently trying to address some of the problems, especially those concerning growers. In the coming weeks, the country plans to launch a pilot program to help traditional ganja growers transition into the regulated space.
“We have had some challenges,” Green said. “But we are trying to ensure that we are focused on developing the industry, its expansion and the development of products.”
While cannabis isn’t for everyone, what it represents to Jamaica can be heard in the liberation music of reggae icons like Peter Tosh, whose 1976 hit song, “Legalize It,” was an ode to ganja lovers everywhere, and Rastafarian-convert Bob Marley, who once described herb as the “healing of the nation.”
Angela Brown Burke, a current member of parliament for the opposition People’s National Party, which pioneered the ganja decriminalization legislation, believes it’s time for Jamaica legalize ganja.
“We need to put in a regime in place to allow persons who are [using for recreation] to call it what it is, not pretending that it is something else,” said the lawmaker, who is married to Paul Burke.
Rávn) Rae, who runs a smoking-supplies and vaping shop in Kingston, said legal recreational use is where the real money is. But to get there, she said, the licensing authority needs to let the medical marijuana industry grow. Right now, it’s being slowed down with paper-work and requirements like high fences, land titles and security cameras for growers. .
“I know that Jamaica is known for herb. I know that we are also known for a lot of illicit activities surrounding it like our drug trade, and I understand the intention of the [licensing authority] in wanting to try and create this regulatory body free of corruption,” Rae, 33, said. “But they’re also making that strict behavior blind them to logical thought.”
Rae said while she had hoped to open the first medical marijuana dispensary in Jamaica, a lack of resources, difficulty in securing land, and getting landlords to provide tax compliance information have all delayed her dreams.
“I am a small business owner who has to trek back and forth to the [licensing authority], to the police records office,” she said.
But American businessman Josh Stanley, co-founder of U.S.-based Charlotte’s Web, doesn’t think the current regulations are restrictive enough. He said Jamaica’s current cannabis landscape, where the herb houses operate as cash-only businesses and grow their own strains, “is unsustainable.”
“So they’re growing it themselves. Where are their processing facilities, where are their curing facilities, where is the in-house laboratory that’s testing the content of that product before it hits the shelves?” Stanley said. “No banking? You’re going to carry cash in Jamaica? And once people know you’re a grower, you’re a target.”
He added that because there are no rules complying with the International Organization for Standardization, which accredits cannabis labs, “your end product has a high probability of having mold, mildew, pesticides, carcinogens.”
Stanley’s company provides hemp-derived Cannabidiol, or CBD, products to help children who suffer from seizures. He said he’s been trying to get into the Jamaica market because of its particular marijuana strains for years.
“We are providing treatment for tens of thousands of children from across the world ... but we still haven’t treated one kid in Jamaica because we haven’t gotten the approval from the government,” he said as he prepared to board a Miami-bound flight after speaking at a recent cannabis conference, sponsored by ganja growers, at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus.
But there is a fear of foreigners like Stanley, and companies coming in with the financial wherewithal to put together large processing and extraction facilities or outspending locals who don’ t have the same access to financing or clinical research.
“We want something that is authentically Jamaica,” said Seiveright “We don’t want it to be foreign. We don’t want it to become some franchise like McDonald’s. That’s not where we’ re going. We’re not going to be like Colorado.”