Jamaica wants in on the booming marijuana market
Most of the time farmers are proud of their crops and are happy to talk about them. But ask a certain kind of farmer what they grow and they might seem a little evasive.
“I farm goats and cows and cabbage in the bush,” says Baxter, a middle-aged farmer in Jamaica.
Inquire further and he starts to laugh.
Baxter isn’t his real name. He doesn’t want to use it because one of his biggest crops is marijuana.
Baxter wears black plastic sunglasses and khaki cargo shorts torn off below the knee. His teeth are stained from the cigarettes he seems to be rolling constantly. He’s standing in the center of a small, rural town on the edge of a bustling street. Goats, chickens and dogs wander through, trying to avoid brightly colored motorbikes.
Here in Jamaica, where Baxter lives and works, growing pot for recreational use is illegal. But it’s still a business.
“Yeah, man, a big business,” he says. “A big, illegal business.”
So Baxter’s farm is hidden. It has to be. To find it, you have to head deep into the countryside. First, a taxi ride out of town. Then, a hike through green sugar cane on a dirt path. Finally, around a corner, is a rocky field covered with knee-high marijuana plants. At night, Baxter sleeps in the open, under a lean-to. Someone always has to be on the lookout for government helicopters. But that could change.
The international market for marijuana is booming. It’s set to reach $50 billion within a decade. And after spending millions to crack down on the drug, Jamaica’s government has decided it wants to cash in. I
t legalized medical marijuana and created a new licensing system to allow farmers to legally grow cannabis for medical, scientific or therapeutic purposes. But the fees are expensive and small farmers like Baxter say they’re being left by the wayside.
“It’s not easy, lots of money to get the license,” he says. “Lots of thousands of dollars.”
Applying for the license alone costs $300 and the licenses can cost farmers thousands of dollars per acre. Then there are processing fees, transportation fees and more. Jamaica’s Cannabis Licensing Authority says some of these other expensive requirements, like fencing and surveillance cameras, are dictated by international drug laws.
Kim Ford is also a local farmer. Her parents sent her to school in the U.S., but now she’s back and is a member of her local Hemp and Ganja Growers Association. She says all these costs have her worried about wealthy foreigners.
“They make more money and then they come here and can pay for licensing, build a whole building, buy a piece of land to put it on, and can move forward,” she says.
China has already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in bauxite mining and sugarcane in Jamaica. Other foreigner investors from Canada and the United Kingdom have purchased some of the hotels lining Jamaica’s famous white-sand beaches.
Ford says she worries the same thing could happen with cannabis — wealthy business people with foreign passports coming in and taking over once again.
“It’s a constant taking away from a country,” she says.
Another part of the problem? The United States.
“Jamaica never would have made (medical) cannabis illegal but for the influence of the United States.”
According to the State Department, Jamaica is the largest Caribbean supplier of illegal pot to the United States. Charles Nesson, a Harvard Law professor with a lifelong interest in Jamaica says the federal government doesn’t want more weed coming in.
But, Nesson says, keeping pot illegal in Jamaica means problems for small farmers like Baxter.
“Criminalize something that is widely available to poor people, widely used by poor people — that leaves discretion in the police as to who they want to arrest,” he says.
There are billions of dollars at stake and a whole list of problems. But there’s also cultural pushback here in Jamaica. The stereotype that all Jamaicans smoke weed is just that — a stereotype. Jamaican culture is traditional — even conservative. And pot is not always OK.
Traditionally, it’s Jamaica’s Rastafarians who’ve embraced cannabis — for spiritual reasons. And the push to legalize ganja has made things better for them. Police are no longer allowed to arrest anyone carrying less than two ounces.
Last year the Rastafari community held a three-day cultural celebration during which participants were legally able to use the drug. They plan to have another celebration in December.
Ras Iyah V is a Rastafari elder. He wants Jamaicans to benefit from the new regulations, but not just spiritually.
“I want to see economic benefit coming from the ganja industry coming back to the community,” he says.
But educating sustenance farmers about government regulations is difficult. Iyah V is also on the board of the Cannabis Licensing Authority. He says they’ve been holding community meetings, but often, farmers don’t show up.
“If people are paying attention to what is going on, then some of these fears would be alleviated.”
Like fears about all those fees. The licensing board says it’s aware of the concerns. It’ll waive fees for small farmers until the end of the year after their crops are sold. It’s also working on a pilot project to let farmers share costs.
But that doesn’t mean all that much to farmers like Baxter. He says years ago, his farm was discovered — spotted by government workers from the sky. "A big, green helicopter ... come straight over the field, with a white guy in it.”
His entire crop was destroyed.
“They cut all of it and burn it,” he says.
Baxter waited till the weather was cool enough and then he planted his fields again. He’s not planning to apply for a license but he is planning to keep farming.