In Portugal and Holland where it has been decriminalised, Ganja smoking across the entire population, after a short initial spike, reduced. And most importantly amongst under-18s who are the most vulnerable to mental health risks.
Some say Ganja arrived in the Caribbean via Amerindian groups. Others mention Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s or suggest Ganja came from Africa with the slave trade. What we know for a fact is Ganja was brought to Trinidad in the mid 19th century by indentured labourers as a folk medicine and by the British themselves.
Toward the end of the 19th century the Colonial government using racist polemic demonised Ganja smoking. As is the way with neo-colonialism, and its failure to question many of the structuring principles from our Colonial past, this moralistic culture of disapproval echoes into our present thinking.
Ganja was made illegal locally in the first half of the 20th century. From this point forward and most desperately since the 1980s we have had a Ganja prohibition problem, rather than a Ganja problem. This is because just as drugs often have harmful consequences, drug prohibition has harmful consequences.
In the context of Ganja the law is also plainly unjust. For example, many middle and upper class persons in T&T drink alcohol in the evening to unwind; some in those same economic brackets do the same with Ganja. Yet those persons in the main do not end up in jail for Ganja offences.
While all groups across genders use Ganja, those who end up in jail for it are predominately young, male and low-income. This on-going, daily, 40-year criminalisation of a section of our population is a major cause of the troubles and the militarised violence we find ourselves with today.
In simple terms decriminalising Ganja would slow the conveyor belt of young men barred from acceptable society and left with few options for qualifications other than the criminal schools and universities we call gangs and prisons.
Before we suggest the solution is actually better law enforcement it is worth stepping back for a second and thinking about managing the problem. It is also important to recognise whether one backs the moral argument or the management argument, we are all on the same side. We all want to reduce the crime and misery accompanying the illegal Ganja economy.
From an anthropological vista – a bottom-up view of power locally – it is quite simple. Criminalising a cultural practice with a long history and well established locally creates its own dangerous consequences including organised crime, violent turf battles, and a waste of government funding that could be spent elsewhere such as education, prosecuting corruption, or improving transport.
There are many who suggest the scientific evidence says Ganja causes many health problems. Even if that evidence is as damning as many claim – and there is a lot of evidence to suggest some misinformation (see CNN’s Dr Sanjey Gupta’s recent video and article for a great overview) – it makes no sense to treat a health issue as a criminal matter or a personal moral failure.
To do so recruits the same racist logic of colonialism and produces a similar colonial inequality to times gone by.
The decriminalisation or legalisation of marijuana will not fix the problems of drug abuse, but it can fix the violent and socially unjust consequences of Ganja prohibition because no matter what we do Ganja is here to stay.
As such it seems pertinent to manage the problem and stop moralising it. Once we become managers we can take back some of the profit from the Ganja economy and find ways to bring it under a smartly regulated, legal system.
Ganja prohibition leads to crime, violence and corruption. It is a never-ending cycle that fuels what sociologists call the prison-industrial complex. To break the cycle we need to change the laws around Ganja and decriminalise many of our young males. In doing so we can start to provide better life options for them, decrease violence over all, and focus on the real danger drug – cocaine.