There’s a hint of disappointment in Courtney Betty’s voice when he talks about the present state of Jamaica’s legal medicinal cannabis regime.
“I don’t think some of the companies coming in to do business here want to understand the social realities of Jamaica, or the real history of ganja in my country,” he said from his home in the country’s capital, Kingston. “I don’t think it is out of ignorance; I think this is just the way Western companies conduct business abroad.”
By “Western” companies, Betty — the chief executive officer of Jamaican medical marijuana company Timeless Herbal Care — means Canadian. Since Jamaica legalized cannabis for medicinal cultivation and sale four years ago, a slew of Canadian pot companies have flooded the tiny island nation, lured by an ideal climate, cheap labour, a friendly business environment and, most of all, Jamaica’s reputation — in history and pop culture — of growing the best strains of weed in the world.
If cannabis companies replicate this country’s sugarcane plantation history, it is going to be a real political problem
But there’s a cultural ownership that Jamaicans feel towards cannabis that Betty believes is often ignored by foreign investors looking for ways to monetize the country’s status as a weed mecca. That, combined with the reality that a significant number of locals have, for decades, relied on cannabis for their livelihoods — albeit illegally — is starting to create an uncomfortable tension between newcomers and those who believe that Jamaican cannabis belongs to Jamaicans.
“If cannabis companies replicate this country’s sugarcane plantation history, it is going to be a real political problem,” Betty said, referencing Jamaica’s checkered colonial past under British rule.
Since going legal in 2015, Jamaica has dispensed almost 30 licences to cultivate and sell cannabis, according to Cindy Lightbourne, director of the Jamaican Cannabis Licensing Agency (CLA). Approximately 170 applications have been conditionally approved, with hundreds more in the queue. Most of those licences, she said, have a significant amount of foreign investment attached to them, although the CLA does not divulge specifics of which entities hold licences or are waiting to get them.
There are at least five Canadian cannabis companies making inroads into Jamaica: Canopy Growth, Aphria, The Green Organic Dutchman, Global Canna Labs and the Jamaican Medical Cannabis Collective. All are involved in either cultivation, retail, or both, and are obligated to have a local partner who will hold majority control over the business, at least on paper, according to Jamaican law.
“It is not easy to get a licence,” said Balram Vaswani, a wealthy local businessman who runs Kaya, a publicly listed cannabis company. “The barriers to entry are big, because you need money to set up your security systems and meet the standards of the licensing authority.” Kaya has multiple retail locations and cultivation sites across Jamaica and recently entered into a strategic alliance with Canadian retail giant Hiku Brands, which owns Tokyo Smoke and was purchased by Canopy last year.
Those barriers to entry are even higher when one considers the difficulty locals have in accessing capital for anything cannabis-related. Lightbourne explained: “The banking sector is a big problem for farmers wanting to transition from the illegal to the legal market, or wanting to just get into cannabis, because our local Jamaican banks have ties to the U.S. and are not willing to take cannabis clients.”
To enter the legal industry, farmers — many of whom have been in the ganja cultivation business for generations — are left with little choice but to partner up with cash-rich foreigners or wealthy locals, or be relegated to the sidelines of Jamaica’s fast-growing medical marijuana sector.
“Bruce (Linton) says he wants to open Tweed stores in Jamaica — everybody is coming to Jamaica because they are going to pass the rules on exporting next month,” Vaswani said, referencing the chief executive of Canopy and the company’s recreational brand.
The way the Caribbean nation’s legal weed system has evolved isn’t exactly how one of its architects envisioned it to be. “In our election campaign, we made a commitment that we would not charge any application fee for farmers looking to enter the legal industry,” said Mark Golding, Jamaica’s former Minister of Justice, whose left-leaning People’s National Party drew up Jamaica’s cannabis legislation back in 2015. That legislation at last allowed the Rastafarian community to cultivate the plant for personal use, a significant pivot from nearly 60 years of government crackdowns.
In 2016, however, when the Jamaican Labour Party was elected, the development of the legal cannabis industry slowed dramatically, according to Golding, as the new government worked to interpret the legislation and how it would fit into Jamaica’s international treaty obligations.
“We had always envisioned there needed to be a holistic approach to find a way of bringing in the small farmers who had developed this industry for Jamaica over decades,” Golding said. “But in fairness to the present government, there has to be effective monitoring and reporting of all legal cannabis growers that met international security standards. Unfortunately, that’s a disadvantage for small farmers.”
Be sensitive to the history of Jamaica, and the realities of Jamaican society
Mark Golding, Jamaica’s former Minister of Justice
There is, however, a pilot project in the works to facilitate the entrance of Jamaican farmers to the legal cannabis industry. Termed the Alternative Development Program (ADP), it would allow cannabis already in cultivation illegally to be fed into the legal system, instead of incurring massive expenses to apply for a licence to grow from the CLA.
Lightbourne explained: “The government has allowed us to use this system in two areas. If these two pilot projects are successful, we can expand it to other areas.”
But Golding is critical of the ADP, and the way in which the Labour Party has embraced cannabis reform altogether. “It has been slow, and lukewarm. The ADP has been three years in the making and all they have is two pilot programs. I can tell you there’s a lot of frustration on the ground from local farmers, especially when they see these big foreign companies and richer Jamaicans capturing the market,” he said.
Diane Scott, the chief executive of the Jamaican Medical Cannabis Collective, a Canadian cannabis company that grows Jamaican weed to export to international markets, believes that there’s a happy medium somewhere. “Look, we employ farmers who have skills passed down from generations and that’s a huge benefit to us. There has to be healthy and immense respect on both sides.”
Scott would not divulge how much cannabis is currently being cultivated in Jamaica, but she did confirm that all of it will eventually be exported, including to Canada.
For Golding, that simply isn’t enough — the fact that farmers most equipped to grow cannabis, who understand the plant best, are struggling to gain legal ownership of their crop continues to be a problem.
“To the Canadians, all I can say is, don’t look at Jamaican cannabis as a typical money-making industry for you. Be sensitive to the history of Jamaica, and the realities of Jamaican society.”