Expert says new laws stifling legal ganja industry

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GANJA growers and producers say regulations to the updated Dangerous Drugs Act (2015) are too stringent and pose a major impediment to those who represent the backbone of the industry, and, by extension, its development.

Vice-president of the Ganja Growers and Producers Association of Jamaica (GGPAJ) Maurice Ellis, who is also an executive member of the Jamaica Licensed Cannabis Association (JLCA), argues that the GGPAJ has been pushing for changes to some of the barriers to entering the industry, as presented by the regulations.

“We have been saying, let us look at moving forward to removing some of these barriers to entry; for example, let’s set up a registry (of growers) more than have this extensive, stringent process. The man who has been ostracised for it (growing ganja) is the same man that is trying to get the licence and he can’t get the licence because he has been locked up,” Ellis told this week’s Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange, that hosted several key players in the fledgling industry.

Ellis pointed out that with unless the number of licensed producers are increased significantly, Jamaica cannot compete in the legal marijuana industry on a global scale. “As a processor if we are not doing 100,000 pounds per year, we are not in the industry [as] we can’t compete globally. With the few licensed producers, and what they are going through with challenges from the CLA (Cannabis Licencing Authority), we are not going to be able to meet the demand and we will be caught flat-footed,” he stated.

While agreeing with the concern, Joan Webley, president of medical cannabis company Itopia Life Limited, and a member of the JLCA executive, noted that the association has a positive relationship with the regulator. She said the CLA has taken some steps to include the foundation players in the industry, such as the Maroon community, indigenous farmers, and agricultural students.

“We are fully in this together, and we have been having meetings with them (CLA) since the beginning of this year. We have not yet had significant changes to the regulations as a result of these meetings as yet, but we do feel like we have made a really meaningful input, and (had) opportunity to look at the hemp policy and the import-export policy.”

Speaking on behalf of the growers’ association, Ellis said the small farmers are at a vast disadvantage as a result of the extensive nature of the rules laid down in law. “When it comes on to the small farmer he’s not being left behind; he’s actually being left out, based on how the regulations are structured. If you look at the fees, as they are, you have to have a retainer of US$2,000 and you have to find another US$10,000 to pay for a licence, and another US$1,000 for administrative (services); if you look at the traditional farmer it is the same guy that is shirtless, barefooted, with cutlass and scissors [in hand}. They have never been the ones to make money out of the ganja industry; it’s either the smugglers or the guys who get it at the end, wherever it goes,” he asserted.

He said growers are put at great expense to meet requirements such as surveillance systems, fencing, and other provisions set out in the regulations.

Ellis explained that the Alternative Development Programme (ADP) — being run as a pilot in Orange Hill, Westmoreland, and Accompong, St Elizabeth — is designed to reduce barriers to entry, but stressed that it is not enough as growers are already starting the race at a deficit. The ADP is intended to enable small ganja farmers to benefit from the ganja industry and prevent illicit cultivation, and allow ganja farmers to provide raw material for processors, he said.

Ellis said that because this is a State-run programme, it is not administered by the regulator. “So the Government would say it has a programme in place to facilitate the industry. But he said when one takes a closer look it’s not adequate; it needs some more build-out and development. If the Government is truly serious about this, then the local experts on the ground need to really be consulted in a holistic way so that we can roll out a programme that is more far-reaching. To have two pilot projects [across] 14 parishes [when] you have ganja being grown in all 14 parishes,” he stated.

Katie Lennon, a long-time cannabis advocate and entrepreneur with cannabis business interests in Jamaica and South Africa, does not believe the Government understands the industry. She said the effort to get the industry off the ground would be better served if local knowledge and expertise is utilised.

“They don’t know the industry, they don’t believe in the Jamaicans who know the industry. It’s a new industry, compared to other agricultural plants wherever you go in the world right now and they’re not using their expertise in Jamaica to guide them. I think the Government would reach further in this industry, on an international basis, if they had used up more of their home-grown expertise to guide the industry,” she stated, pointing out that the leadership of the CLA when it was initially established was “perfect”.

Among the extensive provisions in the interim regulations (2016) to the Dangerous Drugs Act (2015) are that all persons employed to the applicant for a licence are required to provide a police report; a photograph certified by a justice of the peace; proof that satisfactory arrangements are in place for off-site security surveillance of the proposed cultivation site; that the site should not be situated within 600 metres of a school; and the implementation of a system to track all ganja cultivated on the proposed site.

The regulations also set out specific acreage and fencing requirements for cultivators, parking arrangements, facilities for the various cultivation processes such as plant nursery and drying area. Licensed growers are also bound to notify the authority, at least two weeks ahead of harvesting, and cannot carry out those activities unless a representative of the CLA is present.

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