GANJA - JAMAICAS ONLY ECONOMIC HOPE FOR THE 21ST
by BARBARA MAKEDA BLAKE HANNAH
His head and shoulders bowed with the weight of the words circumstances had forced him to utter, Dr. Dennis Forsythe pleaded "Guilty" on Thursday, May 22 to the charge of possession of eight ounces of ganja and a chillum pipe in which to smoke it. It was the sad, final act in the drama that began unfolding when police wrenched off the front door of the house of this veteran Jamaican attorney, sociologist and cultural author with a pickaxe in December 1996, and impelled Dr. Forsythes bold, ambitious and brave challenge to what he considered the violation of his Constitutional Human Rights to Freedom of Religion.
The arresting officer (six-foot-six and a fine specimen of the Jamaican Constabulary Force) proudly holding a cardboard box containing the small and nearly-empty plastic bags of ganja he had found at Dr. Forsythes home, told the women waiting for Dr. Forsythe outside the courthouse that he did not feel he looked foolish. He said in answer to their questions, that he felt that breaking into a mans home on a Saturday night to arrest him for eight ounces of ganja was important police work, for which he was glad to have obtained a conviction. He said he did not think it was more important for him to be arresting gunmen, thieves and rapists.
The Resident Magistrate said he was astonished that it was only eight ounces and not eighty pounds of ganja that had brought Dr. Forsythe, his ladyfriend and her 15-year-old daughter before him. "No one has asked my opinion of the law, whether I support it or not," the RM informed the court. "However, whether or not I support it, I am obliged to act in obedience of the law."
For the eight ounces of ganja, he fined Dr. Forsythe Eight Hundred Jamaican Dollars, as stipulated by the law. For possession of a chillum pipe, the law demanded a fine of Five Thousand Dollars. As the Judge himself remarked, the fines hardly covered the cost of the arrest and subsequent court appearances. Outside the court, another RastaMan unconnected with the case, burst into tears of anger as his trial for possession of ganja was postponed yet again, putting his job in jeopardy. One of Dr. Forsythes legal associates comforted him and returned to the courtroom to provide legal representation.
Forsythe, whose external appearance proves the often-repeated statement that "the largest army of Rastafari are unlocksed" and seemingly invisible in the wider society, was prepared to be a lamb on the sacrificial altar of legalization. Spending his own funds, acting as his own advocate, and drawing on the deep repository of his own experiences and publications over the past 25 years, Dr. Forsythe gave a dignified, impressive and legally brilliant presentation of the reasons why legalization of ganja for personal and sacramental uses is long overdue.
An action group composed of members of Forsythes Legalize Ganja Campaign committee and the Rastafari community made a demonstration of solidarity behind this "plain clothes Rasta". Though initital discussions among the group suggested street demonstrations before, during and after Forsythes trial, a final decision was made to avoid confrontation with the security forces and instead let opinions and comments on the case emerge spontaneously from the wider public. This decision was a wise one, as -- in the absence of a Rasta-centered demonstration -- the public was free to take a stand on the issue.
While some people obviously expect Rasta reaction to always be confrontational, views expressed in the public media and on the streets show that support for the issue of legalization increased as a result of the case and the manner in which it was handled by Dr. Forsythe and the Rastafari community. Dr. Forsythe himself has been greeted with congratulations and as a hero by members of the public who have seen him on television or who discover who he is. Much of this is due to the sympathetic manner in which the media presented their reports of the case.
As one who was present during every minute of this historic case, I tender some suggestions which need to be made, despite the outcome of the case. In retrospect, I believe Dr. Forsythes presentation should have included suggestions of how legalization of personal use of ganja can be handled and controlled. I realise that few people in Jamaica know that in Holland one can enter coffee or tea houses and buy ganja just as one can buy coffee. This could also be done in Jamaica, allowing people -- even tourists -- to purchase their ganja in licensed tea houses.
There would then be no need for petty hustlers pestering tourists on the beach, and police could freely arrest those who now peddle ganja as a cover for selling cocaine and heroin, then plead guilty to possession only of ganja which they know most police will overlook. Revenue from the licensing of tea shops and sale of products would benefit the economy. Individuals would be able to plant and grow their own personal supply of ganja, thus further reducing the street sale.
Hotels and other public places would still be able to make rules as to where smoking is or is not allowed, just as they rope off sections of our beautiful beaches to allow tourists to sunbathe naked. Moreover, if ganja is legalized as a religious sacrament, this would limit the wanton smoking of ganja any- and every-where, as persons would have to appear to be partaking in a sacramental, rather than a casual activity. The usage of ganja would disappear from the streets, once people knew they were free to smoke in their homes and other private places.
The country could then concentrate on growing less potent breeds of cannabis sativa for production. It cannot be said often enough that Jamaica could easily produce enough ganja seeds to make enough oil to run our entire island -- so incredibly versatile is this humble herb. After producing our own oil, we could then manufacture enough cloth from hemp fibre to supply the raging world demand for hemp clothing, shoes and other fibre-based products. NIKE already produces a hemp basketball shoe, and the entertainment industry has fuelled the fashion for hemp clothing. Germany and Taiwan, major industrial nations, have legalized hemp for this kind of production.
Our mis-used and under-used Jamaica Defense Force could provide the security required for licensed and taxed factories serving modern hemp farms, producing the kind of paper used for printing money and Bibles, or medicines for cancer, glaucoma and AIDS patients. Medical tourism including natural therapies, diet and lifestyle which include marijuana for its healing properties, should be encouraged to transform and inject revenue into small non-inclusive hotels. Jamaica could become in three years economically self-sufficient from such productive activites, WHILE AT THE SAME TIME MAINTAINING ALL INTERNATIONAL TREATIES AGAINST THE EXPORT OF GANJA IN ITS VEGETABLE STATE.
The decision by Justices Wolfe, Ellis and Clarke has not gone unnoticed by the Jamaican electorate, and indeed the wider world which has been closely observing this landmark case via Internet reports.
I believe the PNP government, through its Judiciary -- which undoubtedly took guidance from it in making its decision -- lost a great opportunity to show that they are in tune with the feelings of the people they govern. Especially at a time when the US government has made such stringent demands to curb a drug-running problem in Jamaican waters which came about and is exacerbated by the continuing refusal to separate ganja from truly dangerous drugs, the PNP could have negotiated the liberalisation of the law against personal use.
Undoubtedly, the negative decision in the Forsythe case has swelled the ranks of the politically uncommitted and reduced the PNPs pre-election lead. While Dr. Forsythe will continue his quest for Constitutional justice through the Court of Appeal and even if necessary to the Privy Council, the repercussions of the Chief Justices decision will be manifested in the ripples of time. Once again, I repeat that the PNP and its political and judicial heirarcy lost a good opportunity to take Jamaica unequivocally into the 21st Century and lead the worlds conscience and economy. What happens next, only time will tell.
PUBLISHED IN THE JAMAICA OBSERVER, JUNE 24, 1997