THE furore that erupted on social media over the registration of a cannabis company by a relative of the Attorney General reveals the deep fissure of distrust that runs through our society. In this case, the distrust is heightened by the high price paid by some of the most marginalised persons who for more than 100 years risked imprisonment and fines to keep marijuana cultivation alive and to develop a market for the product.
The abrupt legislative about-turn by the Government in decriminalising marijuana contains echoes of the colonial 1915 Ganja Ordinance which outlawed the cultivation, possession and trade of marijuana with hefty penalties of fines and imprisonment. The objective of the 1915 law was to bring the informal marijuana trade under the control of the colonial authorities for taxation purposes through licensing. In later years, it was added to the schedule of narcotic substances and declared a dangerous drug under general prosecution.
In all of the time that marijuana has been criminalised, the brunt of prosecution has been against low-income earners fuelling the perception of those at the top of the economic chain as untouchable by the law. Now that marijuana cultivation, trade and possession are on the verge of being decriminalised within a defined legal framework, the anxiety being openly expressed is that the new regime will continue to benefit the well-financed, well-connected business class while marginalising those who took the risk.
This is the fear that sprang to life on Saturday as registration documents for West Indian Cannabis Co Ltd began circulating on social media, identifying the AG’s relative, Jenna-Marie Nahous, as a director. As outrage and accusations escalated, fellow director Christopher Moses stepped forward to defend his company against accusations of collusion and preferential treatment.
Whether or not West Indian Cannabis Co Ltd intends to diversify its business beyond textiles and into marijuana, is not the issue. The company has the right like any other to access opportunity in line with the law. Far more important is the State policy which will undergird the development of the cannabis industry.
Addressing Parliament, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi made much of the fact that foreign businesses seeking to enter the T&T cannabis market will be required to have a minimum of 30 per cent local investment. The perspective is a red flag which already signals the Government’s seriously flawed approach to a highly political issue grounded in social justice. Legalisation of the industry under licensed conditions is an historic opportunity for the state to bring marijuana farmers, marketeers and scientists into the economy as proprietors with a stake in the development of this new industry. This opportunity must not be lost to foreign investors in return for fees and taxes. The priority must be to open it up to the broad community of small farmers who have taken the greatest risk in keeping the crop alive and now have the chance to turn their expertise into wealth creation on the right side of the law.
What is needed before the dispensing of licences is the articulation of policy to guide the development of the industry on fair and transparent terms.