Public Comments of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana
Laws (NORML) In Response to the Recommendations of the
Jamaican National Commission on Ganja
November 3, 2003
Since 1970, The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
(NORML) has served as a voice for marijuana consumers in the ongoing
national and international debates over marijuana policy. The organization,
along with its sister organization, the NORML Foundation, seeks through
public education, lobbying and public advocacy to: overcome the unfair
negative stereotype of marijuana smokers, offer alternatives to criminal
prohibition, and sway public and political opinion sufficiently so that the
responsible use of cannabis by adults is no longer subject to penalty.
NORML read with great interest the findings of the 2001 Report of the
National Commission on Ganja , and applauds the Commission's diligence and
the expert guidance it lends to the matter of decriminalizing marijuana in
Jamaica. Before responding specifically to the Commission's
recommendations, NORML would first like to provide some background on the
topic of marijuana decriminalization, and its adoption as a public policy
throughout the world.
A HISTORICAL OVERVIEW OF MARIJUANA DECRIMINALIZATION
Over the past four decades, the issue of marijuana policy has been
thoroughly investigated and debated. Federally appointed commissions in the
United States , Great Britain , Canada , Australia , New Zealand ,
Switzerland and elsewhere have conducted inquiries on the subject, and
universally these commissions have recommended amending federal law so that
the possession and personal use of marijuana by adults is no longer an
offense punishable by arrest or incarceration. This policy, known as
"decriminalization," removes the drug user (and, in most cases, any
non-profit distributor) from the criminal justice system, while
simultaneously maintaining criminal penalties against those who sell or
traffic large quantities of illicit drugs.
Nations throughout the globe have enacted various forms of marijuana
decriminalization, and in some cases, legalization. For example, adults no
longer face criminal penalties for possessing and using marijuana in
countries as such Spain, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, Croatia,
Switzerland, and the Netherlands, among others. In Australia, several
states have enacted regional decriminalization policies, and in the United
States, more than ten states have had marijuana decriminalization laws on
the books for the past 25 years. In addition, governments in Canada, Great
Britain and France have recently announced that they will soon be
implementing decriminalization policies nationwide.
Despite opponents' concerns that marijuana decriminalization might lead to
an increase in marijuana use, national and international studies have found
this belief to be unwarranted. For example, a recent study published in the
British Journal of Psychiatry examining marijuana prevalence in the
Netherlands -- where federal law allows for the regulated sale and use of
cannabis for those over 16 years of age -- compared to that of other nations
concluded, "The Dutch experience, together with those of a few other
countries with more modest policy changes, provides a moderately good
empirical case that removal of criminal prohibitions on cannabis possession
(decriminalization) will not increase the prevalence of marijuana or any
other illicit drug; the argument for decriminalization is thus strong."
A similar comparison study conducted by the Australian Institute of
Criminology also found that decriminalizing marijuana had no adverse impact
on cannabis consumption. "The different laws which govern the use and sale
of marijuana do not appear to have resulted in substantially different
outcomes if we view those outcomes solely in terms of consumption patterns,"
the study's authors found. And in the United States, a federally
commissioned study by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social
Research concluded that decriminalization has "had virtually no effect on
either the marijuana use or on the related attitudes and beliefs about
marijuana use among young people."
In sum, marijuana decriminalization has a long and successful history as a
public policy throughout the globe, and does not lead to an increase in the
prevalence of marijuana use.
MARIJUANA DECRIMINALIZATION IN JAMAICA: AN ANALYSIS OF THE RECOMMENDATIONS
OF THE NATIONAL COMMISSION ON GANJA
Having examined the issue of marijuana decriminalization in general, NORML
will now comment specifically on the National Commission's recommendations
regarding the decriminalization of cannabis in Jamaica.
"THE RELEVANT LAWS BE AMENDED SO THAT GANJA BE DECRIMINALISED FOR PRIVATE,
PERSONAL USE OF SMALL QUANTITIES BY ADULTS"
NORML supports this recommendation of the Commission wholeheartedly.
Marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco, and fails to
inflict the types of serious health consequences these two legal drugs
cause. For example, in the United States, approximately 46,000 people die
each year from alcohol-induced deaths (not including motor vehicle
fatalities where alcohol impairment was a contributing factor), such as
overdose and cirrhosis. Similarly, more than 440,000 premature deaths
annually are attributed to tobacco smoking. By comparison, marijuana is
non-toxic and cannot cause death by overdose. In a large-scale U.S.
population study of marijuana use and mortality published in the American
Journal of Public Health, marijuana use, even long-term, showed little if
on non-AIDS mortality in men and on total mortality in women.
And according to the prestigious European medical journal, The Lancet, The
smoking of cannabis, even long-term, is not harmful to health.
be reasonable to judge cannabis as less of a threat
than alcohol or
Additional concerns regarding marijuana's perceived public health and safety
risks have also proven false under scientific scrutiny. For example, a 2002
Canadian Senate special select committee report concluded that: marijuana is
not a gateway to the use of hard drugs ; marijuana use does not lead to the
commission of crime ; marijuana users are unlikely to become dependent ; and
marijuana use alone has little negative impact on driving.
After having considered this evidence, NORML believes that any minor health
and safety risk presented by marijuana smoking falls within the ambit of
choice we permit the individual in a free society. Therefore, NORML
maintains -- as does this Commission -- that cannabis' low risk potential
fails to justify its criminal prohibition. Responsible adult marijuana
smokers present no legitimate threat or danger to society, and there is no
reason for the federal law to define them as criminals. To do so is to wage
war without cause against a significant segment of Jamaica's adult
NORML further agrees with the Commission's finding that criminalizing
marijuana use despite its relative safety is a misapplication of the
criminal sanction and inspires disrespect for the rule of law. The
"The Commission takes the view that, ironically, the criminal status of
ganja poses a serious danger to society. By alienating and
criminalising hundreds of thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens,
and by making the State in their view an instrument of their oppression
rather than their protection, the law and its prosecution create in them
disrespect for the rule of law. When the rule of law goes, anarchy sets
in. Any law that brings the rule of law into disrepute is itself a threat
to the stability of society."
NORML concurs with this conclusion. If the expressed purpose of the
criminal law is to deter or at least significantly discourage behavior, then
by this standard alone, Jamaica's marijuana laws have been a categorical
failure. Marijuana use in Jamaica remains widespread despite the
enforcement of criminal laws outlawing its use, and federal studies indicate
that neither the criminal law, nor the threat of arrest, significantly
influence one's decision to use marijuana. Nevertheless, the Jamaican
government continues to enforce criminal prohibition -- a decision that has
led to the arrest, incarceration and disenfranchisement of tens of thousand
of Jamaicans, while having little, if any, impact on the prevalence of
Moreover, the use of marijuana has long been entrenched in Jamaican culture,
and a policy of decriminalization would be a first and well-advised step in
reflecting this cultural reality. By decriminalizing the personal
possession and use of marijuana, Parliament would remove the responsible
adult marijuana smoker beyond the reach of the criminal justice system, and
end the State's needless destruction of the lives and careers of tens of
thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens whose only "crime" is that they
prefer cannabis to relax rather than alcohol. Decriminalization would
acknowledge that the responsible use of marijuana poses little health or
safety threat, and that its use as a medicine, intoxicant, and a sacrament
is an established part of the Jamaican culture. Finally, marijuana
decriminalization would address the inequity that governs the legalization
and control of tobacco and alcohol while simultaneously prohibiting the use
of cannabis -- a policy that the Commission correctly points out "cannot be
rationally justified" and, as such, engenders disrespect for the rule of law
in general -- particularly among young people.
"DECRIMINALISATION FOR PERSONAL USE SHOULD EXCLUDE SMOKING BY JUVENILES OR
BY ANYONE IN PREMISES ACCESSIBLE TO THE PUBLIC"
Marijuana smoking is for adults only, and is inappropriate for children.
Therefore NORML supports the Commission's recommendation that marijuana be
decriminalized for adults but remain off-limits for children. (Under such a
system, minors who illegally possess or consume marijuana would still face
strict civil penalties, such as fines and community service.) There are
many activities in our society that are permissible for adults, but
forbidden for children, such as gambling, skydiving, signing contracts,
getting married, drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco. However, we as a
society do not condone arresting adults who responsibly engage in these
activities in order to dissuade our children from doing so. Nor can we
justify arresting adult marijuana smokers on the grounds of sending a
message to children. Our expectation and hope for young people is that
they grow up to be civic-minded, responsible adults, and our obligation to
them is to demonstrate what that means. NORML believes that a system of
marijuana decriminalization -- whereby the responsible use of marijuana by
adults is no longer a criminal offense, but criminal acts committed while
under the drug's influence (such as driving while impaired) remain illegal
-- adequately and rationally presents this message better than does the
current Jamaican policy of blanket prohibition.
"GANJA SHOULD BE DECRIMINALIZED FOR USE AS A SACRAMENT FOR RELIGIOUS
The Commission found that many Jamaicans hold strong, sincere beliefs that
marijuana is a "substance given by God to be used as mankind sees fit."
Therefore, the Commission recommends that the use of marijuana for religious
purposes no longer be a crime. NORML agrees with the Commission's
recommendation, noting that religious freedom is one of the foundations of a
free society, and that marijuana's low risk to public health and safety
fails to justify any governmental intrusion into the public's ability to
freely practice their religion however they see fit.
"A SUSTAINED ALL-MEDIA, ALL-SCHOOLS EDUCATION PROGRAMME AIMED AT DEMAND
REDUCTION ACCOMPANY THE PROCESS OF DECRIMINALISATION AND THAT ITS TARGET
SHOULD BE, IN THE MAIN, YOUNG PEOPLE"
NORML agrees with this recommendation, adding once again, that the
possession and use of marijuana is for responsible adults and not children.
It would be our expectation that under a decriminalized system, drug
education programs dedicated toward preventing young people from
experimenting with marijuana would move in a more health-and-science based
direction, such as those in the United States of America that currently
dissuade teens from trying tobacco or driving under the influence of
alcohol. These latter campaigns, which rely on scientific facts and health
concerns have effectively reduced undesirable teenage behavior whereas
similar government-financed ad campaigns targeting adolescent marijuana use
which rely on hyperbole and scare-tactics, have not.
It is NORML's further expectation that any future federally sponsored drug
education programs will immediately be seen as more credible in the eyes of
young people once the government has acknowledged marijuana's relative
safety and has legally distinguished it from harder, more dangerous drugs
such as cocaine and heroin.
"SECURITY FORCES INTENSIFY THEIR INTERDICTION OF LARGE CULTIVATION OF GANJA
AND TRAFFICKING OF ILLEGAL DRUGS, IN PARTICULAR CRACK/COCAINE"
Decriminalization would free millions of dollars in police and prosecutorial
resources that are currently used to target, prosecute and jail minor
marijuana offenders, while potentially raising additional revenue through
the use of civil fines. NORML agrees with the Commission that marijuana
decriminalization would -- and should -- free up criminal justice resources
to target other more serious crimes, and allow law enforcement to focus on
the highest echelons of hard-drug trafficking enterprises rather than on
minor marijuana offenders who represent little -- if any -- threat to public
"JAMAICA EMBARK ON DIPLOMATIC INITIATIVES WITH ... COUNTRIES OUTSIDE THE
REGION, IN PARTICULAR, MEMBERS OF THE EUROPEAN UNION, WITH A VIEW (A) TO
ELICIT SUPPORT FOR ITS INTERNAL POSITION, AND (B) INFLUENCE THE
INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY TO RE-EXAMINE THE STATUS OF CANNABIS"
NORML supports the Commission's call for a worldwide review of marijuana
policy, and notes that such a re-examination is already taking place. As
noted earlier in this testimony, nations throughout the globe are abandoning
criminal penalties for the possession and use of marijuana in favor of
decriminalization, or in some cases, legalization. Within the past years,
marijuana decriminalization has become law in the countries of Belgium,
Portugal, Luxembourg, and Croatia, among others, and will soon be the
national policy of Great Britain, France, and Canada. In addition, both the
Netherlands and Switzerland have explored various forms of cannabis
regulation, and both Canada and the Netherlands have recently adopted
policies allowing for the federal distribution and regulation of marijuana
for medicinal purposes.
In addition, it is worth noting that the majority of these countries have
liberalized their marijuana laws despite being signatories of international
drug treaties, in particular the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
While proponents of marijuana prohibition have often argued that these
treaty obligations require signatories to adhere to a rigid national policy
of criminal marijuana prohibition, several studies have concluded that these
treaties do not prohibit countries from relaxing legal restrictions on the
personal use or cultivation of marijuana.
Most recently, a legal study released by the British think-tank DrugScope
concluded that governments have considerable room for maneuver under the
terms of the three drug control Conventions, adding that the treaties allow
for measures such as education, rehabilitation and social reintegration
[to] be substituted for conviction and penal sanction in drug cases.
Authors noted that many European nations have replaced criminal penalties
for minor drug crimes with administrative sanctions without running afoul
with U.N. treaties by either calling on constitutional principles,
principles of proportionality or public interest criteria with regard to use
or possession offenses which are considered minor in nature, [or by invoking
to apply alternatives to punishment for offenses which have
been established as punishable.
Other studies, including the United States' First Report of the National
Commission on marijuana and Drug Abuse, have reached similar conclusions,
concluding that the word possession in Article 36 of the Single Convention
refers not to possession for personal use, but to possession as a link to
Responsible marijuana smokers present no legitimate threat or danger to
society, and must not be treated as criminals. By stubbornly defining all
marijuana smoking as criminal, including that which involves adults smoking
within the privacy of their own homes, Jamaica is wasting precious police
and prosecutorial resources; clogging the courts; filling costly and scarce
jail and prison space that would otherwise house violent offenders;
undermining drug education efforts; acting against the best interests of
public health and safety; engendering disrespect for the rule of law; and
needlessly wrecking the lives and careers of tens of thousands of otherwise
law-abiding citizens every year.
NORML thanks the Commission on Ganja for their diligent work on this issue,
and applauds their recommendation to amend Jamaican federal law to allow for
the private, personal use of small quantities of marijuana by adults.
Finally, as the NORML organization is internationally recognized as an
expert of the subject of marijuana and marijuana policy, we would welcome
the opportunity to provide additional testimony to the Jamaican Parliament
on this matter if and when future hearings are convened.