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Decriminalising ganja a form of tourist attraction?

David Jessop, Contributor

A debate is just beginning that is unlikely to reach a conclusion anytime soon. It relates to ganja and tourism and follows from the decision by Jamaica and in time, possibly others in the Caribbean, to decriminalise the holding of small quantities of marijuana and its use for medicinal and religious purposes.

The measure, which, in Jamaica, is domestic in its intent, responds to long-standing pressure for change, but may well for a variety of reasons come to be a form of tourism attraction.

In the United States, where the states of Colorado and Washington have legalised the narcotic, reports in the local and national media suggest that this is resulting in a surge in visitor arrivals and an upturn in tax revenues. Although it is clear that events like Hempfest in Seattle attract around 30,000 participants to sample products competing for an annual cannabis cup, officials argue that interstate marijuana tourism remains a myth.

Online tourism visitor trends

However, recent interviews by NBC with industry analysts who measure online tourism visitor trends suggest that there has been a 10 per cent increase in hits on hotel and destination sites when there are ganja-related events in the two states.

In The Netherlands, there is no doubt, with up to two million tourists a year visiting licensed coffee shops where cannabis is available. This is despite recent court rulings and pressure from neighbouring states to ban the use of the product by visitors - a decision many coffee shops and some big cities have decided to ignore on the basis of the nation's laissez faire approach to social issues, and out of concern for the negative impact on tourism.

What all this suggests is that news of the decriminalisation of the possession of ganja in Jamaica may spur the arrival of additional visitors.

Opinions are, to say the least, mixed.

At the Caribbean Tourism Organisation's (CTO) recent state of the industry conference held in the United States Virgin Islands (USVI), a panel discussed the issue of marijuana tourism, partly in a wellness tourism context.

Hugh Riley, CTO's secretary general, said that there was need to debate the facts. "We can pretend it doesn't exist and the rest of the world isn't talking about it. At the end of the day, we have to make decisions that are in the best interest of the people of the Caribbean," he said. "It is entirely up to destinations within and outside of the Caribbean to determine whether they want to use marijuana as a magnet to draw tourists," he added. "It is a factor, we have to discuss it, and we are going to study it further."

One voice urging caution, however, was that of Dr James Hospedales, the executive director of the region's Caribbean Public Health Agency. In a careful evidence-based presentation, he summarised: "Proceed with an abundance of caution, given the significant adverse effects of cannabis smoking on health and social and occupational functioning, and especially so among youth."

In contrast, Terrence Nelson, a member of the USVI legislature, advocated that the region "should adopt and adapt cannabis as a Caribbean commodity" and called for the creation of a Caribbean cannabis trade organisation "to market Caribbean marijuana tourism," the proceeds of which could finance infrastructure upgrades and enable the region to compete with other health and wellness destination markets.

The issue of ganja tourism, whether for medicinal purposes or for personal enjoyment, will remain controversial as its use raises many other questions that the authorities in the region's tourism feeder markets also have to consider. These range from accidental possession by a returning visitor, to the confused message that consumption is alright, but production remains illegal because of its links to major organised crime networks and its use to fund criminal or terrorist acts.

No one would deny that some visitors partake when they visit, or that the legal availability of ganja may be an additional attraction. However, tourism as an industry needs a much broader understanding. Until then, it should proceed warily. 

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