It is no secret that the market for legal medical marijuana is a growing one, and as more countries legitimise the drug it is expected to be worth US$146 billion by 2025 – roughly double its current size.
Barbados and some of our Caribbean neighbours have gone the route of decriminalising the drug for medicinal use as well. Our closest neighbour, St Vincent and the Grenadines have already legitimised ganja for research purposes, as it actively seeks a new alternative to the struggling banana industry, just as we have had to cope with diminished returns on the cane sugar we have relied on for centuries.
During the recent Budget debate, Minister of Agriculture and Food Security Indar Weir spoke enthusiastically about the Government’s plans for developing a medical marijuana industry.
He announced in the House: “We are about to launch a unit to roll out this project, and once we do so, we will look at the legislative process, and look at the full value chain associated with this commodity to ensure Barbados is on the edge in terms of market space.
“We will train our growers, and the product can also expand our health tourism sector if we create rehabilitation centres where people can come in and obtain medicinal marijuana to help them with pain management, non-communicable diseases, Alzheimer’s and other health conditions.”
We share his enthusiasm but we must look beyond the short term and ensure we have other options for economic and crop diversification before we rush headlong into creating our dominant agricultural commodity.
We must first remember that the huge pond of international trade does not favour small Caribbean fish.
If we act as primary producers, merely supplying the raw materials to our neighbours in the north and the east, we may find ourselves in the same dilemma we did with sugar and bananas.
Unless we develop a regional pharmaceutical industry that will use the regionally grown and harvested commodity, grown to provide appropriate quantities and potency of whatever medicinal products are made, we will have to compete with other countries who have more land and lower labour costs.
And with modern farming technology, marijuana can be grown anywhere in the world, so if they have not already done so, the world’s big pharmaceutical companies could set up their own plantations in their home countries, or in countries where they own subsidiary companies, to grow all the weed they need. So who will get the majority of the business?
History provides valuable lessons in the fate of tobacco business, the main cash crop the Caribbean and North America prior to the “sugar revolution” in the mid-17th century.
Since 1964, when the US Surgeon General established that cigarettes were harmful to health, the tobacco industry has suffered dwindling profits and a tarnished image.
Then came lawsuits against the cigarette makers as deaths piled up smokers, the warning labels, taxes and other measures aimed at deterring consumption, and in more recent years, the banning of smoking on flights and in public places.
What if marijuana finds itself in a similar position two or three decades from now, and use of the product gets restricted or is banned once again? What if synthetic alternatives are discovered? How will we survive if prices for our main cash crop plummet?
In the meantime, we still need to eat every day. And with the high incidence of non-communicable diseases, often linked to the consumption of processed, imported food items, we must get back to healthier diets.
It is no secret that Barbados has a high food import bill, so import substitution, as well as ensuring everyone has access to locally grown and bred, high-quality livestock and produce, should take priority.
As a country susceptible to natural disasters, we must still safeguard our food supply. To this end, we praised the Ministry of Agriculture’s Farmers Empowerment and Enfranchisement Drive (FEED) initiative, which over a three-year period is expected to train some 2,000 farmers in agronomy, animal husbandry, pest control, pest management, and record keeping – “everything needed to run a farm as a business”, as Chief Agricultural Officer Lennox Chandler put it.
On the FEED programme, Weir said: “We must have a good mix of the youth and older people in the sector, and we want to get people involved in areas where there is limited rainfall or inadequate access to irrigation.”
On the question of markets for the produce, the minister said: “We have engaged the Barbados Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation in talks to manage the entire programme, so there is a ready market for the farmers’ produce, and BADMC will work with the School Meals Service, the Ministry of Health and the hotel and restaurant sector in this respect.”
The Chief Agricultural Officer has long advocated that idle land across the country should be put back into agricultural production, while there are several remote-controlled greenhouses and environmentally friendly farms using renewable and sustainable energy already in operation. Another recent option is re-purposed freight containers, which as Chandler said are advantageous in many ways, in that the level of security they offer can act as a deterrent to praedial larceny, and once set up correctly, can withstand the ravages of a Category 4 hurricane.
It could indeed prove profitable to cash in on a burgeoning medical marijuana industry, we should concentrate our efforts on feeding ourselves, and build up our production capacity so that we can export to our neighbours as well.