Jamaica inched closer to decriminalizing the use of marijuana by announcing approval of its use for medicinal purposes. Justice Minister Mark Golding announced the changes recently. According to Golding, “the island’s Cabinet approved the decision to amend the Dangerous Drugs Act to make the law a less punishable offense by allowing the possession of two ounces or less of marijuana.”

Instead of being criminally charged for possession, individuals will now be fined if found in violation of the revised law.

Among the changes announced the most controversial were that users of small quantities of marijuana will no longer have a criminal record and that smoking of the illegal drug would be decriminalized under certain conditions.

In a statement released by the government changes to the law would permit: “the possession of small quantities for personal use, the smoking of marijuana in private places and the use of marijuana for medical/medicinal purposes.”

The change may have been hastened by claim that marijuana “is becoming widely accepted across the world and that it has therapeutic use. Medical and scientific research on the drug has shown it to be effective in reducing nausea and vomiting, stimulating appetite, promoting weight gain and the treatment of glaucoma. Allegedly, it has been used to treat spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis, relief of migraine headaches, depression, seizures, insomnia and chronic pain.

Reports of patients who suffer from the effects of cancer, HIV/AIDS and other diseases “have found significant relief of various symptoms from the use of marijuana, though in many cases they are forced to do so illegally.”

Reportedly Jamaican scientists, Professor Manley West and Dr. Albert Lockhart developed the drug Canasol from the marijuana plant for the treatment of glaucoma. Dr. Henry Lowe, another local specialist has also been involved in research in the same area of research. He recently launched a company to pursue more comprehensive research and made applications for related commercial advances.

Other arguments were raised that “imposition of harsh penalties has not proven to be an effective deterrent to smoking the weed.” And allegedly the use of marijuana is prevalent in the society – at all ages. In fact, there is claim that “prohibition serves to enhance the mystique of the forbidden activity, and thereby encourages adolescent use.”

But already opposition is mounting and at the forefront is a group from The Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ). They are against the changes and contend that the relaxation of the laws will lead to more usage and consequently more mental problems among the population. In response to Golding’s announcement the MAJ has asked the Cabinet to reconsider its position in line with health practice and science.

MAJ President Dr. Shane Alexis argued that the decision will cause more mental and physical health problems for Jamaicans, especially the youth.

“As physicians we have been confronted first hand with and seen the devastating effects of the misuse of marijuana. The adverse effects of marijuana, include, but are not limited to: addiction, psychiatric disorders, and disruption of neurological development (especially in adolescents). Negative impact on all aspects of memory is also closely associated with marijuana use,” Dr. Alexis said.

“We have already seen a significant number of road fatalities in Jamaica. Cannabis withdrawal symptoms can also result in violence. Jamaica already suffers from a high violent crime rate. Many of those who smoke it are at higher risk of developing lung problems including cancer than non-smokers,” he added.

He said any future use of medical marijuana in Jamaica must be supported by scientific evidence that has been rigorously tested locally and internationally and not with emotions.

Meanwhile, another health official has also warned of the consequences of relaxing the laws related to marijuana possession,

Consultant Psychiatrist and Deputy Chairman of the National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA), Dr. Winston De La Haye, described the planned move by the government as “unfortunate.”

“We are making decisions today that Jamaica and Jamaicans will pay dearly for, for many years to come,” he said, warning that the health system was already unable to cope with the number of patients turning up with health issues related to smoking of marijuana.

He said with decriminalization, availability of the drug is likely to increase, and with that the practice of smoking it is likely to increase “especially knowing that the consequences of your use isn’t as great as it was yesterday.”

He reported that within the urban areas, “each night, we see four to five patients who need admission, primarily with cannabis-induced psychosis, and we can’t admit them because Bellevue (the country’s main specialist mental health hospital) is full.”

He said the NCDA does not support the policy shift regarding the smoking of marijuana. However, the association was in support of decriminalization “for research purposes, for medicinal purposes, and for no other.”

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