PEOPLE & THINGS: Vincy ganja views
Although the aspect of the recent CADRES St Vincent survey that caught the attention of the regional Press related to the political advantage of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, it also presented information which should be equally relevant in light of Gonsalves’ interest in decriminalizing marijuana for medical purposes.
One previous edition of People And Things examined this issue and hinted at this author’s inclination regarding this issue and it was therefore useful to explore the extent to which Vincentians were supportive of changing their legal attitude.
The survey explored the attitude of Vincentians only (no surveys were conducted in the Grenadines) and asked persons a single question that sought to elicit their support for:
• Complete decriminalization;
• Partial decriminalization or decriminalization for religious or medical purposes; and
• No decriminalization.
The cumulative data demonstrates an absence of any overwhelming national opinion on this issue. The single largest group of persons on the mainland (44 per cent) believe that marijuana should remain illegal as it presently is; however, the cumulative quantity of those who support decriminalization of medical or religious marijuana (36 per cent) and those who believe that it should be fully decriminalized (9 per cent) amount to 45 per cent, which is statistically similar to those opposing any decriminalization.
If one were also to consider 11 per cent of persons who said they were unsure of their opinion, this means that a national minority supported continued criminalization.
Alternatively, if one were to take a more simplistic approach, it could be argued that neither partial nor full decriminalization have majority support at this time, so the population is minded to leave things “as is”.
There are a few other observations that can be made about these data once the analysis is further refined and one such is the extent to which party support influences Vincentians’ views. This comparative analysis demonstrates that views on this issue are in no way influenced by party support, as all variations are within the margin of error of the survey.
Essentially, Vincentians who support the Unity Labour Party are no more likely to support either full or partial decriminalization than Vincentians who support the New Democratic Party. The issue of marijuana decriminalization is therefore not political and this means that neither political party is likely to benefit from adopting this issue as part of its platform.
There is unfortunately a paucity of comparative data on regional opinion on this issue and as such there is no way of comparing the contemporary views of Caribbean people on this issue.
In 2001, the Chavannes Commission in Jamaica took a qualitative approach to this and concluded that “The overwhelming majority of persons appearing before the Commission feel that ganja should be decriminalized, but are united in restricting its use to private space and to adults”. The Chavannes investigation was qualitative but comprehensive and examined the issue from all possible angles, which is perhaps a preferred approach.
In Barbados there has been less national interest in this issue, but a 2004 CADRES/NATION survey found that 64 per cent of Barbadians opposed any type of decriminalization, while cumulatively 27 per cent supported either total or partial decriminalization.
There is therefore some distance between the Barbados, Vincentian and Jamaican positions, but these studies were separated by some years and this is an important fact to consider.
Opinions on decriminalization in Barbados do however compare favourably with reported use, as least among younger Barbadians.
CADRES explored this aspect of the issue twice on behalf of the National Council on Substance Abuse in 2000 and 2002 and in both instances the sample was limited and not national. In 2000, one survey of “at-risk” young people reported that 30 per cent of persons identified as “at-risk” experimented with marijuana, while 20 per cent reported recreational use.
Later in 2002, a structured survey of schools (the Barbados Global Youth Tobacco Survey) revealed that 17 per cent of students admitted to having experimented with marijuana at least once.
Over the last ten years much has happened regarding attitudes towards marijuana and it would be reasonable to argue that regional and international attitudes have softened considerably and these attitudes would no doubt have influenced our own perceptions in the Caribbean.
Generally, CADRES has found that attitudes towards social issues like these tend to move only in one direction over time and as such it would be surprising if Barbadians are now still as opposed to decriminalization as they were in 2004. Public opinion will, however, always be one aspect of this issue and the regional and international context is another.
Presumably, the less hostile international environment has motivated Gonsalves to ignite this discussion and it will be interesting to see where it goes over the next few weeks and months.
• Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).