Imagine a lush, tropical land just a few hundred miles off the U.S. coast where marijuana, though illegal, is a cultural icon worshiped by thousands and so plentiful it goes for just $26 a pound.
Now, imagine this place when it's legal.
That's precisely what Jamaica's government-appointed National Commission on Ganja has been doing for the last nine months.
Led by the dean of social sciences at Kingston's University of the West Indies, the seven-member commission has heard from more than 150 people and institutions ranging from the Medical Assn. of Jamaica to the Rastafarian Centralization Organization, and it has sounded out more than a dozen communities nationwide.
This month, the official body will present its final recommendations on whether marijuana should be decriminalized here.
An interim report that Commission Chairman Barry Chevannes presented to Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson in May gave no clear indication whether the commission will endorse decriminalization, a recommendation that would then be put to Parliament for a vote.
"It may be deduced so far that most persons and organizations would support the decriminalization of the use of ganja for private purposes and in private spaces," the preliminary report said. "However, there are those who would prefer to maintain the status quo regarding the criminal status of ganja in Jamaica."
The Bush administration isn't likely to welcome decriminalization. Even under then-President Clinton, the State Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration consistently expressed concern over Jamaica's large marijuana crop and its exports to U.S. markets.
Chevannes said the commission is seriously considering the "external consequences" of its recommendation. Beyond a potential U.S. condemnation, they include a possible snowball effect on other marijuana-producing Caribbean islands that have considered decriminalizing the plant in the past. And K.D. Knight, Jamaica's national security minister, said this week that he opposes decriminalization.
The commission chairman cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck a blow to medical use of marijuana in America as a sign of the times in Jamaica's powerful neighbor to the north.
"The U.S., in the kind of mood it is in today, well, this matter will be one for the commission to weigh," Chevannes said.
Privately, however, U.S. and Jamaican law enforcement officials say the island's marijuana trade has been eclipsed by a more lucrative role as a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine bound for the United States--a multibillion-dollar industry that is fueling gang wars in Kingston, the capital, and a murder rate that ranks among the highest in the world.
Some proponents of decriminalization argue that Jamaican police could focus more resources on combating the cocaine trade if relieved of targeting ganja; last year, police officials say, they seized more than 6 tons of marijuana and destroyed more than 1,000 acres of the plant.
Yet ganja remains plentiful, readily available and cheap; by comparison, a pound of the Jamaican herb that goes for $26 here can fetch more than $1,500 in the U.S.
"One opinion on the commission is that [decriminalization] would not significantly increase the use of marijuana," Chevannes said. "Right now, anyone who wants to smoke ganja is virtually at liberty to do so. It is freely available at large gatherings. And, indeed, if police were to arrest everyone who's doing it, tens of thousands would be in jail."
Still, he added, police here arrest about 5,000 people on marijuana charges annually, 90% of them for minor offenses.
"So, arguably, the only thing the decriminalization of it would be doing is taking the status of a crime off thousands of people," Chevannes said. "And most of them are young people.
"Were the commission to recommend decriminalization, it would not seriously change anything here."