A marijuana plant in St. Vincent. (iWN file photo)

By *Jomo Thomas

It has long been said that he who frames the question wins the debate. This is particularly true now as we talk about marijuana. If you ask whether people should be allowed to use marijuana recreationally as we now use alcohol or cigarettes, most people will so no. This is especially so because of the stigma associated with this herb. Politicians, police, and doctors have led this demonisation over the years. However, if Vincentians are asked whether they believe that our young people should be arrested and jailed for the possession of small quantities of the marijuana, or if police should brutalise our youth for such possession, the overwhelming majority will also say no.

So let’s frame the debate and save our people/nation. A recent report issued by CARICOM says the following:

  1. The analysis of the comprehensive information gathered indicates that the current legal regime for marijuana, characterised as it is by prohibition and draconian criminal penalties, is ineffective, incongruous, obsolete and deeply unjust
  2. Marijuana use for children and young persons should be discouraged.
  3. Marijuana is a victimless crime.
  4. Prohibition denied Caribbean substantial economic benefits
  5. While Marijuana should remained controlled it should no longer be classified as a dangerous drug with no medicinal and other value.
  6. The law should be changed to move away from criminalization toward a responsible regulated, public health, rights-based approach.

The Commission recommendations show that there is need for a thoroughgoing educational effort to destroy the myths and remove the stigma and demonisation currently attached to marijuana. So here goes:

Cannabis, better known as marijuana, has been used for its medicinal properties for thousands of years. It’s been heralded as a “cure-all”, revered for its healing properties, particularly for pain but also as a potential cancer treatment. Marijuana was a popular botanical medicine in the 19th and 20th centuries, common in pharmacies.

In 1970 marijuana was declared a Schedule 1 controlled substance in the US, a classification reserved for drugs with “high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medical use”. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was formed to enforce the newly created drug schedules, and the war against marijuana use began internationally. In light of its history as a global panacea for all sorts of ills, it’s classification as a dangerous controlled drug is particularly unjustified.

There has also been a significant scientific discovery that the human body is equipped with a cannabinoid system that offers evolutionary evidence that mankind’s relationship with cannabis goes back to the very dawn of the human species. The marijuana plant contains more than 60 different cannabinoids; chemical compounds the human body is uniquely equipped to respond to. The two primary ones are cannabinoid (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the latter of which is the psychoactive component. Cannabinoids interact with your body by way of naturally occurring cannabinoid receptors embedded in cell membranes throughout your body.

The therapeutic (and psychoactive) properties of marijuana occur when a cannabinoid activates a cannabinoid receptor. We still don’t know exactly how far its impact on our health reaches, but to date, it’s known that cannabinoid receptors play an important role in many body processes, including metabolic regulation, pain, anxiety, bone growth and immune function.

Marijuana has had a long association with medicine and spirituality. Taoist monks in ancient China burned cannabis as incense, and consumed it with ginseng — a combination thought to open your psychic centres, allowing you to see the future. Cannabis was also revered as sacred in Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism.

The earliest written references to cannabis are found in the Chinese Materia Medica, said to be written by Shen Nung around 2800 B.C. The oldest known copy of this book dates back to 50 B.C. Nung is one of three ‘celestial emperors’ revered in the Chinese culture. Half emperor, half deity, he is said to have ruled over China long before written history.

Nung is credited with inventing agriculture — including the hoe, plow and irrigation — as well as acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Often depicted draped in leaves and chewing on various plants, Nung was the first pharmacologist, experimenting with and recording the health effects of plants. Nung documented around 100 different conditions that responded well to cannabis, including gout, rheumatism, malaria and absentmindedness. Before Nung declared its medicinal attributes, the cannabis plant, called “ma” in Chinese, had been used for centuries in the production of textiles, paper, rope and pottery. Around 200 A.D., a Chinese physician named Hua Tuo performed surgery using an anaesthetic — a formula called Ma Fei San, which translates to “cannabis boiling powder”.

For thousands of years, cannabis remained one of the 50 essential plants used. It was only removed from widespread use in recent times due to its controversial legal status. Marijuana has a history in Indian culture. In the Vedas, the sacred text of India, cannabis (bhang) is listed as one of five sacred plants, and the Hindu god Shiva is referred to as “Lord of the bhang,” meaning the Lord of cannabis.

According to the Mahanirvana, “bhang is consumed in order to liberate oneself,” and liberation is the path to immortality. The ancient Egyptians, Persians and Greeks also used cannabis in a variety of ways, including medicinally and for spiritual upliftment. References to cannabis are even found in Islamic, Judaic and Christian texts, although an error in translation appears to have crept into the Bible along the way. The original Hebrew term “kaneh bosm”, or cannabis, is found several times in the Old Testament.

In the book of Exodus, God instructs Moses on how to make a holy anointing oil: “Take for yourself choice spices: 500 shekels of pure myrrh, half as much fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of kaneh bosm and 500 shekels of cassia and mix these with olive oil.” In more modern Bibles, kaneh bosm has been translated as sweet calamus. The problem is this plant does not have the properties that the Bible ascribes to kaneh bosm.

A 12th century painting found in a Sicilian basilica also ‘appears to show Jesus near a pot leaf.’ The painting is titled ‘Jesus healing the blind.’ Interestingly enough, modern scientific studies have since proven that cannabis delays retinal degeneration and can cure glaucoma

The historical evidence seems to support the finds of the CARICOM commission on Marijuana. We will have more on this important topic next week.

*Jomo Thomas is a lawyer, journalist and international affairs specialist. He is a former senator and is now speaker in the national assembly of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to news.iwitness@gmail.com.

The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to news.iwitness@gmail.com.