Should marijuana be used as a marketing tool in the Caribbean?

REPORT - Many people travel to the Caribbean region with the expectation that they can easily get their hands on and smoke marijuana...

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St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands — Some people may travel to the Caribbean region with the expectation that they can easily get their hands on and smoke marijuana.

With the increase of tourism to the two U.S. states that have legalized recreational marijuana, Caribbean officials recently debated whether or not marijuana should be used to draw to tourists to the Caribbean.

At this year’s “State of the Industry” conference held on the island of St. Thomas, Caribbean tourism leaders were warned to “proceed with caution, given the significant adverse effects of cannabis smoking on health and social and occupational functioning”.

Dr. C. James Hospedales of the Caribbean Public Health Agency gave this warning during a broader discussion on medical, health and wellness tourism at the mid-September conference. In his video message to delegates during the session, Dr. Hospedales went onto to say that public health and scientific studies prove without a doubt the negative effect of marijuana smoking on physical and mental health.

“As decriminalization is considered, I must draw attention to some of the significant neurologic, cognitive, behavioral, and physical consequences of short and long-term marijuana use,” he said. “These include negative effects on short-term memory, concentration, attention span, motivation, and problem solving, and negative health effects with repeated use similar to effects seen with smoking tobacco.”

Hospedales also mentioned “an association between marijuana use and the subsequent development of mental health problems.”

Those statements were strongly disputed by Terrence Nelson, a member of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ legislature. He feels the Caribbean Tourism Organization “should adopt and adapt cannabis as a Caribbean commodity because it is true most people come to the Caribbean and they anticipate smoking weed.”

“I’m talking about working professionals, not juvenile delinquents. I’m talking about hard-working surgeons, lawyers and even politicians,” he said. We have something going on, and we need to capture it.”

Nelson was especially critical of Hospedales’ statements associating marijuana use with mental illness. “We have Rasta men in every country; you don’t see them running around and being schizophrenic and crazy,” he said. “Jamaica’s tourism market was created because of marijuana and the Rasta man because people fly into Jamaica to see where this thing comes from”.

Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders created a committee to discuss decriminalization earlier this year, and Jamaica’s government just recently approved proposals for amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act, which would allow marijuana cultivation for medicinal and industrial purposes.

Nelson believes that it is time for the Caribbean to move beyond discussion. He called for the creation of a “Caribbean cannabis trade organization to market Caribbean marijuana tourism.” According to him, proceeds from marijuana tourism could go to a superfund that could finance infrastructure improvements, including updates and expansions of healthcare facilities — necessary advancements in order for the region to compete with other health and wellness destination markets.

Nelson says that he often faces criticism for his views and has even been called to step down for his views on the legalization of marijuana.

The stance of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, which puts on the annual conference, is that it is up to destinations to determine whether they want to use marijuana as a marketing tool.

The CTO’s General Secretary, Hugh Riley, made it clear that while member countries of the Caribbean Tourism Organization can learn from the legalization progress in the US, “We are not setting any national policies here. We are simply providing information for our constituents”.

Melissa Noel is a freelance multimedia journalist based in the New York area. Follow Melissa on Twitter @noelknowswell.