For decades poor farmers in countries like Jamaica and St Vincent have risked the wrath of governments and gangsters to grow cannabis as a cash crop.
But as Canada becomes the first country in the Group of Seven leading industrial nations to fully legalize marijuana, those countries where the crop has traditionally been grown risk losing out on new legal markets worth billions of dollars.
The truth, says Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute (TNI), a Dutch drug-policy research organization, is that most growers are poor farmers, often women, who cultivate marijuana on small holdings in the hills and mountains.
Now they are competing with Western corporations. And with no international institution to represent them because of the illegality of marijuana in most of the world.
In the Caribbean, sensing winds of change, countries are beginning to scale back legislation — much of it demanded by countries like the US — that prohibited marijuana use.
In 2015, Jamaica legalized marijuana production for medical and religious purposes.
Last month, a Jamaican company made the island’s first shipment of medical marijuana extract oil to Canada.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines are in the process of passing similar legislation to Jamaica.
The Caribbean Community (Caricom) has set up a marijuana commission which recently published recommendations to decriminalize the drug, with a view to rural development and boosting the income and rights of farmers.
In a report entitled “Waiting to Exhale,” the commission also recommended making sure small farmers are included in any production and supply arrangements, with appropriate controls limiting large enterprise and foreign involvement.
Others in the region, whose main crop until recently was bananas, want to go further and make cannabis the “new 21st-century banana,” as St. Vincent Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves put it in 2014.
One of the biggest obstacles to making marijuana a lucrative currency earner for poorer nations is the international treaty system on drugs and narcotics, based in Vienna.
While producing and exporting cannabis for medical purposes is allowed within the international legal system, it is not allowed for recreational purposes.
“The problem is the issue in Vienna is so polarized,” said Jelsma. “The treaties are clearly outdated and don’t give any flexibility for countries like Jamaica to design their own drugs policies.”
Canada has acknowledged that by legalizing pot it is in breach of its international treaty obligations. The country supports a group of international lawyers who are working to find a compromise so countries can “opt out” of the provisions for marijuana crops and legally export their product.