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The Evolving View of Cannabis

cannabis_1~ Many opinions expressed at St. Maarten’s first open forum ~


By Lisa Davis-Burnett


Marijuana is seen as a gateway drug, partly because it is illegal, meaning that in order to get it, one must go into situations, where other illegal activities are taking place and associate with dealers of various illegal substances. “If it was structurally controlled and properly distributed, we would eliminate this discussion about it being a gateway to harder drugs.” This opinion was expressed by Dr. Jay Haviser at St. Maarten’s first Cannabis Education and Awareness Discussion. The event was held in the evening of Saturday, April 18, at Belair Community Center, and was organized by Freedom Fighters Musical and Cultural Foundation. It was hosted by Roland Joe, aka Ras Bushman, president of that organization and moderated by Reyna Joe.


The topics centered on the possible consequences of legalization or decriminalization of Marijuana (Cannabis) on the island. Opinions ranged from medicinal concerns, issues of religious freedom and the personal liberties to partake for recreational purposes. The discussion was open to all members of the community, and those who attended maintained a respectful tone and kept the focus on a positive and intellectual level.


The members of the panel included three medical doctors, a lawyer, a business person, a taxi driver and an anthropologist. They offered a range of opinions based on their professional and personal experiences; however, it was clear the overall mood of both the panel and the audience was in favor of legalization of Marijuana, at least for some purposes. Only one panelist declared being “against legalization.”


On the record

Lawyer and former prosecutor Cor Merx was a strong voice in favor of legalization of marijuana, advocating for minimal controls by government. His reasoning was that there is simply no reason for it to be illegal. “There are more victims from sugar than there is from cannabis.” He admitted that he himself used marijuana in his youth. “If we are talking about legalization,” Merx espoused, “it is important to state that every law has an exception. For instance in the traffic law, you are not allowed to drive over a speed of 5 kph, but if an ambulance is coming with lights on and with the siren, they are allowed to drive over 50. So every law can end up being unreasonable, especially the Opium Landsverordening [National Ordinance] – that’s the law regarding the hard drugs - has an exception and this is all based on the reservations of a doctor. So we first investigate what is the medical benefit, and not look only at the law.” Merx suggested the only way to effect such a change in the law is to begin a new political party, which received a cheer from the audience.


Taxi driver Johan Romney said he hopes Parliament will legalize marijuana, in particular for medical use, since he personally benefits from its use for his symptoms of sickle cell anemia. He asked his doctor if ganja would help to alleviate the pain and was told yes, go ahead. Romney noted that the herb is natural, “the same as a coconut tree, lemongrass or soursop.” He doesn’t understand how someone can come along and say that it is illegal. He related that when he was in school, his friends offered him some, but he told them, no let me attend my school and finish that first.


General practitioner Dr. Ruth Douglas opposes the use of marijuana, saying that she does not support the use of any psychoactive drug that will possibly alter brain cells. Her work as a police doctor has given her the experience to see firsthand that some individuals may appear psychotic when on drugs. She also noted that people have underlying problems that need to be addressed, rather than relying on drugs. Douglas noted that people will make their choices, and then they come to her to get help for their situation.


Anthropologist/archeologist Dr. Jay Haviser said he is not a Rastafarian, but that he shares many of their views about the importance of spreading positivism, ensuring peace and supporting community cooperation for the betterment of society. He spoke regarding the defense of civil liberties as basic human rights of individuals to make their own choices regarding their own personal behaviors, as long as those practices do not pose harm to the greater society. His opinion is that Cannabis is not for everyone, but that it is a purely natural plant with known important health benefits, and therefore it should not be denied to those who chose to use it. He referred to the usage as ‘a victimless crime.’


General practitioner Dr. Stephen Golden is a medical doctor from Arkansas in the US. He referred to his conservative upbringing in which there was no smoking, no drinking and no drugs of any kind. He grew up accepting the demonization of marijuana and other drugs, but during some incidents in his life he began to look at the scientific research, and over the years he has come to the conclusion that this particular product can be used as an adjunct to medicines to alleviate chronic pain associated with HIV, cancer and many other diseases. He noted that sometimes a caregiver has to consider not just how long you live, but the quality of life you have during that time. “This is something we can use to help some people,” he said.


Businessman Arun Jagtiani gave thanks to the organizers for being brave enough to touch upon this taboo topic. He shared his opinion that legalization could offer many good business opportunities for the island. He stated that globally we are witnessing a revolution against the prohibition of marijuana. “We in St. Maarten have a very unique opportunity to create a lucrative tourist product virtually overnight. The fact of the matter is that it already exists; it’s just operating on the black market. It’s about time we make it a legitimate industry and generate some tax revenue, diversify our economy, create jobs and use some of the proceeds back into an awareness campaign.” He said if it was legalized he would love to apply for a business license in that sector. He noted that there are various models for how to make marijuana legal, the coffeehouse model in Holland, the cannabis clubs in Spain, the grow-it-yourself model in Alaska.


Jagtiani said that perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions is that if it were to be legalized, then all of the sudden it would be like Woodstock in the streets. “One of the reasons I think the timing for this discussion is so right, is that other countries and other States have done this experiment for us. For instance, in Colorado, usage among teens has gone down since legalization. And there has been absolutely no sign that everyone is starting to smoke.”


Neuropsychiatric physician from the United States, Dr. Don Johnson, has been measuring how brains work for the last 15 years. He said he prides himself on really searching out rational, logical, scientifically-driven conclusions about how to take care of his patients. “This is about options,” he stated, “and this is too important a plant to be relegated to the category of a schedule 1 substance. The data do not support that classification.” He said it is time we began to make decisions based on real scientific data, not fear or misrepresentations.


Johnson asked, “When you hear that something is illegal, what do you think? You think that means it’s dangerous, right? And yet we have so many more lethal substances out there that are not illegal; alcohol, tobacco, prescription pain medications – all of these have huge numbers of health problems associated with them. The death rate is 400,000% greater for alcohol than for cannabis use. There is not one documented death for cannabis use. Alcohol is associated with violent crime in the US, there is zero violent crime linked to marijuana usage, they don’t even have a category for that. As a society, we admit far more lethal substances into our culture than marijuana, without a second thought.”


Dr. Johnson noted that in his practice, he sees marijuana helping his patients with symptoms of many serious ailments, “The research is really emerging in this area at a phenomenal rate. There are so many different strains of marijuana now. You can actually customize the genetics of the plant. They have been able to isolate the THC out of the element and use the CBD part of that. And the CBD is linked to so many positive effects. You can almost eliminate the THC. Not all marijuana makes you high,” said the neuropsychiatrist.


“Research shows that it can be effective to provide relief from the symptoms of cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, Crone’s disease, post traumatic stress disorder, seizures, nausea, appetite changes, chronic pain and anxiety. A lot of these are neurological problems and I deal with them regularly and the medicine that my patients are supposed to take, that are approved by the FDA, make my patients sick. I mean really, really sick, and they hate to take them, so I have a lot of problems with compliance.” Johnson says his patients often turn to medicating themselves with marijuana.


Gateway Drug?

The panel was posed the question of whether marijuana is a gateway drug. In addition to Haviser’s assertion that its illegality is the cause of this association, Dr. Douglas said, “In fact it is not a gateway drug.” But went on to say, “It is stated that when children use marijuana, especially those who have childhood problems, they are the ones who may become hooked on hard drugs.” She also pointed out that although it may not be a gateway drug, this can depend on the person’s genetics and his or her state of mind.

Mr. Romney shared, “Some people say that marijuana is a gateway drug, but I don’t see that, I have been using it for so long and no other drug tempts me. I don’t drink booze. I don’t think it’s true that if you use marijuana you will want to use cocaine or heroin or any of that kind of stupidness.”

Dr. Golden stated he doesn’t see marijuana this way at all, and in his practice he has many more problems with hydrocortisone and other pain meds functioning as a gateway to harder drugs.


Looking back

Panelists discussed some of the history of Cannabis. Dr. Haviser explained that it has been used since 6000 BC, and throughout its history it was known primarily as hemp, the fibres of the stalk of the plant, which is the raw material for rope. Its medicinal purposes started around 3000 BC. It was grown throughout colonial times at the behest of the government. He noted, “Every single medical textbook since 1500 includes hemp as an ingredient in medicines.” Indian servants, indentured to Jamaica and other British territories, are thought to have originally brought hemp plants to the Caribbean region. Dr. Golden added that the plant was prohibited in the United States during the 1930s, but by the World War II era farmers were again encouraged by the government to grow hemp for military uses. By the mid century, it was again prohibited and not only made a schedule 1 drug, but was the target of a propaganda campaign aimed at spreading fear and misinformation.


Jagtiani related that the hemp plant has many uses and has been a major part of many economies for centuries. “From rope, paper, soap, lotions, fabrics, crèmes, the list goes on and on. It’s been around for thousands of years and it’s only been illegal for about one per cent of that time.”


Looking forward

The panel discussion ended with a request to sign a petition for a referendum on the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana in St. Maarten for medicinal, religious and recreational use. It was noted that the police department, as well as various ministers had sent proxies to the panel discussion to report back to them regarding the substance of the meeting. Roland “Ras Bushman” Joe said, stay tuned, more discussions are planned for the future.


The use of marijuana was recently decriminalized in Jamaica, while many countries, including the Netherlands, Spain and Uruguay have had legalized marijuana use for many years. Medicinal marijuana has been approved in 23 of the 50 states in the US, and the recreational use of the herb is enjoying an upswing in popularity, now legal in four states with ballot measures expected in several more by the end of the year.