The politics Of Marijuana in St.Vincent & The Grenadines
/ Friday 29 October 2010
I have always enjoyed saying my piece on matters of National Significance. On the Constitutional Referendum held Six weeks ago, I chose to discuss matters surrounding the constitution on the Blocks, in bars, even in the hills, rather than to write about it as I often do. Now that the referendum has come and gone, and having listened to all our so-called political analyst and commentators, giving their views on the factors that would have influenced its outcome, and recognizing that they have all fallen short in their analysis, I have decided to say my part by writing, in addition to give some political history of marijuana.
Someone who believes that marijuana has not been an issue in our politics, and in particular in the outcome of the Referendum is of the opinion that I usually give too much attention to this subject (marijuana), and there are others who believe likewise. My first response is, what God creates, no one has the right to destroy. But perhaps most important is the realization that marijuana constitutes a significant part of our nation’s economy, entire communities and hundreds of families depend on it as their only means of livelihood, a significant percentage of our youths use it as their primary means of recreation, it is largely grown in our forest on steep and hilly slopes and is the cause of serious deforestation, soil erosion and pollution of our water supplies, it is associated with guns and other serious crime. Finally, for thousands of years, along with coca and the opium poppy, it has been part of the tradition, the culture and the medicinal practices of many indigenous communities in Asia, Africa, South and Central America before it was outlawed by our white Colonial and Imperialist masters.
So if persons cannot see it as an area to be emphasized, or better said, if after considering all the above factors (the livelihood issue, the culture and tradition of a people, the deforestation etc) they fail to see the need or importance of emphasizing the marijuana discussion and to look at it in its totality, then their world must be an isolated one. In the same way that one cannot reasonably argue that the government is paying too much attention to restricting the guns on our streets, knowing the growing increase in murders, one should neither see it as being reasonable to say that too much attention is being given to the marijuana debate, bearing in mind it is associated with deforestation, livelihood and serious crimes.
The potential of marijuana is influencing our nation’s politics has been growing as far back as the early 1970’s at the same time that the Black Power Movement began gaining momentum among the youths and in several grass root communities throughout the country. Interestingly, marijuana and the movement had become so intertwined that a spliff was commonly referred to as a “Black Power Cigarette”.
Young people constituted the core of the movement and amongst them unemployment was high. Marijuana was also a source of finance, if not the primary source ,of political and public relation activities of certain of associated groups. It was used to finance scholarships to students attending secondary schools, to purchase books and other educational material for needy children, and to provide meals for poor families, particularly in the Rose Place community, Proceeds from its sale also helped in the production of political news papers and pamphlets, which became tools of education, organization and mobilization of the masses.
By so doing, marijuana became a symbol of radicalism and resistance to Colonialism, for Justice, Democracy and Freedom and in so far as it was seen in this way, it also served as a rally symbol for the youths and as a catalyst to the change from the elitist and European values to values associated with African culture, and which were more reflective to the needs and aspirations of the local population.
Along side this came the emergence of popular Blocks in several grassroot communities throughout the country. The Block then was not only a place where marijuana could be bought and smoke, but it became a centre of black political and historical discussions. Indeed, it was within this sort of ganja-polititcal climate that many brothers and sisters were roused to black consciousness, while some others, including, some of this nation’s former and present political intellectuals, government bureaucrats and ministers received some radical political thoughts..
Hence, the fight for marijuana, to many of us in the movement, and to the youths who rallied around and supported that movement, was seen as an integral part of the fight against the colonialist who through their domination of International organizations like the UN, and before it, the league of Nations and others, establish laws governing the use of marijuana, forcing other countries to follow, To this end, they received the support of the white colonial government in the colonies, and later was able to convince our own ingenious representatives to come on board, disregarding the cultural, traditional and medicinal practices of some of their own indigenous communities.
It is against this background that traditional parties like the Unity Labour Party and the New Democratic Party (NDP), as well as others in our region are force to operate and seek to justify their fight against marijuana, and why our politicians in general, whether they are “independents” ULP, NDP, Green Party or the recently formed Movement of Jomo Thomas Oscar Allen, are not very open on the matter, and, moreso, never seem willing to call for a new and more progressive approach to marijuana as a priority in their party’s political agenda.
But the world is changing everywhere, including at the level of the United Nation General Assembly on Drugs where the ideological battles for a new and more progressive approach towards marijuana, coca and opium poppy are being fought out. As a result, the undivided sway once held by those nations that instituted the anti marijuana laws has been broken. Representatives of civil societies and the producers of those crops that has been declared to be illicit, as well as the governments of Amsterdam, Bolivia and others, motivated by their respect for the tradition, the culture and the medicinal practices of the above tribal communities and by the needs and aspirations of their own local populations have been demanding a corrections of what is regarded as a historical wrong With this growing influence at the level of the United Nation, and, in particular, with a soften of the laws in several European countries, including England, Amsterdam, and in the United States where the Obama administration has recently reformed its medical marijuana laws, there is good reason for the governments of the region and in particular for our own government to begin a reviewing process aim at reforming our domestic laws on marijuana, To this end ,we call on the Vincentian populace and on our political parties to place this in the forefront of their organizations’ agenda.
As a single nation, the challenge is a big one and carries the risk of political isolation and economic sanctions, particular from the USA who leads the fight against marijuana, But as a region, the potential risk are less. That’s why the Movement for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (MORAL) here has called on the government to initiate discussions with their Caribbean counterparts on the issue. This initiative is necessary, not simply because marijuana constitute a significant part of our economy, or in an effort to stop the growing criminalization of our young population for the simple possession of a spliff, but, more interestingly, unlike our neighbouring territories, marijuana has become a determinant factor in our nation’s politics, thus placing us on the threshold of a political future which we may all live to regret, but which we could reverse if we act with urgency by putting certain mitigating measures in place.
The general elections of 1998, 2001 and 2005 respectively, and, more recently, the constitutional referendum bear testimony of the influence of marijuana on our national politics.
In 1998, for example, voters in the constituency of north leeward, where the most marijuana is grown, vowed to supported the candidate of the New Democratic Party after being convinced by its propaganda that the then opposing ULP had plans to build a coastguard base in their community to fight the growing drugs trade. The NDP won the election, including North Leeward, and shortly following its victory, invited the American military, the DEA and the regional security forces here, where they carried out one of the largest marijuana eradication in this country. The eradication took place in December on the eve of the Christmas vacation, dealing a devastation blow on many rural families, and causing the nation’s Chamber of Commerce to publicly expressed concern. Following the raids, there were a scarcity of marijuana in the country, which led to an increased in alcohol and crack cocaine among the youths. Crimes like housebreaking, stealing agricultural produce and arm robberies also increased especially in the most affected communities. Some families began experiencing for the first time disruption of utility services like water and electricity because they were unable to pay their bills, while many were unable to send their children to schools at the beginning of the school year that followed. The Columbians took advantage of the situation, the connections were made, since then crack cocaine has become much more easily accessible here. The following year another eradication with the same forces involved was carried out, and the cycle was repeated.
By 2001, the NDP has lost its credibility amongst the masses, particularly amongst the marijuana population, to the extent that when the government was confronted with protest and demonstrations which forced it out of office, and which was organized by the Organization for the Defence of Democracy (ODD), the party said marijuana farmers had taken over that organization. In the build up to the elections of that year, both the ULP and the NDP showed unprecedented tolerance towards ganja. While under the latter, there was a significant reduction in eradication and general harassment of the Blocks, the political rallies of the former assumed an atmosphere like Woodstock and Reggae Sunsplash. In March, when the election was called, the growers in record numbers from as far as Duvalle and Fancy in the north of the island to Lowmans Hill in the south journeyed to their respective constituencies to vote for the opposing ULP. Many Rastafarians to whom marijuana is seen as a religious sacrament and who had never voted before, even though they were at age, came out and voted against the ruling party because of its attitude against ganja and the police excesses that was associated with it.
The NDP lost the general election with marijuana playing a significant role in its defeat. One senior party official of the NDP had this to say, “We lapsed on the ganja front because we failed to put certain things in place to ensure the livelihood of growers and their families”. “Failure to do so carried with it a political cost. “ It is probably one of the reasons why we have lost.”
The first five years leading up to the 2005 elections was a relatively quiet as far as marijuana was concerned. While there were losses and setbacks from interdictions both at sea and on land, as well as scattered eradications, something growers generally expect and accept, there were no major eradication exercise. At the end of the first When the 2005 election was called, the incumbent ULP won with a reduced majority, but marijuana was not one of the major vexing issues. Instead, they were general things like unemployment, growing cost of living, and, of course, the political activism of the opposing New Democratic Party on matters that the government may have fallen short or alleged to have done so. In fact, many growers did not even vote or showed any interest in so doing but was least concerned since, in their opinion, the government policies did not affect them in any significant way.
Between 2005 and 2009, the situation changed significantly as the government increased its fight against drugs. During that period, there were extensive eradications by both local and regional security forces, reaching its peak by May 2009 under the code name “Vincy Pac”. This mission was carried out by the Regional Security Force, with the use of a military helicopter from Trinidad and Tobago, and it was felt, at least by Dr.Gonsalves, that the choice of the region’s as oppose to the American military would be more appealing and justified to the Vincentian public. But this attempted justification did not make the situation better. Indeed, “Vincy Pac” would be remembered as the worst nightmare in the history of marijuana in this country, not in relation to the amount of drugs lost or seized, but as far as the lost of life was concerned and the manner in which the exercise was carried out.
In the process, three youths were gunned down and killed by the military, and while it is widely suspected to be murder, the official findings is yet to be told. There were also widespread police excesses on the blocks. Many growers and their families, especially from North Leeward suffered lost of their animals ,which either died of starvation because they were tied and left unattended or were killed and eaten by the very security forces who were camping in the areas. Other agriculture crops which the growers farmed were also deliberately destroyed.
As is expected, no political party would remain silent in such a charged atmosphere, and so the NDP sought to take advantage of the situation. But we know the history of that party as it relates to the eradication of marijuana and killing of civilians by the police. Between 1984 and 2001, several brothers were shot and killed either in the hills or elsewhere for no justifiable reasons. Growers were also brutalized, and while there were never any killings at the level of what took place during “Vincy Pac”,during the 1999 eradication, one farmer was shot and killed by the police who accused him of being armed and was fleeing from the area. Animals were also killed and eaten and crops were deliberately destroyed.
The Constitution Referendum stood as another demonstration more than ever of the political influence of marijuana here. While the ruling party gave no indication that it was willing to compromise on this front during the build up to the referendum, it certainly could not risk any serious eradication at the time for fear of any political fall out. As for the NDP, it microphone was loud and clear, condemning the government’s position on marijuana in those communities where it (ganja) is most popular in an effort for the no votes.
The outcome of the Referendum is now history. Growers and smokers from the length and breath of the country, especially from the constituencies of North and South Leeward, and the blocks in west, central and east Kingstown, came out in large numbers to register their dissatisfaction against the government which, in their opinion, was bent on eradicating marijuana. In other words, rather than paying attention to the contents of the constitution, which, indeed, represented an improvment on the old one, they voted as an act of revenge.
Now, while it would seem that the NDP is sympathetic to marijuana, it has never turned back on the position it held for the 17 years as a ruling party, and continues to do so as official policy. In fact, the party reaffirmed that position when it organized an anti-marijuana march in the capital, Kingstown, in the relative recent past. And it is only political party in this country to have ever done so.
So to blame one party as opposed to the other on this matter is a mistake. We must not be misled by either of the two into making a political decision in favour of one or the other, bearing in mind that both parties subscribe to the Drug policies of the United Nations and fall under the obligation of the Regional security agreements. Nor by any other political entity here for that matter, unless, of course, such an entity begin to show concretely that it has decided to review this country’s position on the issue with the aim of taking a new approach.
My own analysis reveals that there is strong political support for a new and just approach to marijuana in this country. But our political parties do not seem to think so, even though many rank and file members within them believe otherwise. Even those so-called independent political analyst and commentators ,whom I thought would be more frank, seem to have doubts. Take for example, the Constitutional Referendum. I have read and listened to their comments on factors that would have influenced its outcome, and no one, as far as I am aware, have been sufficiently analytical to point to the government’s attitude towards marijuana and the opposition hypocritical support for it, as having anything to do with its outcome, or if they did, reduced its significance to a minimum impact. Unless, perhaps, on the one hand ,they are so intimated by this growing trend and its potential as a political force, and on the other hand, by their own political future If they fail to adopt, that they felt it more satisfying not to be so reminded. But we must not be daunted. The struggle continues.
Politicians and political parties have their role to play, but they are not the ultimate makers of history. It is the masses.