Caribbean Winds of Change for Cannabis?

The Caribbean is questioning its enduring ties to the British Crown, as it seeks to fully turn the page on its colonial past. During the next few years, we will likely see several of the independent Caribbean nations that maintain constitutional ties to the British monarch become republics, led by local heads of state. These winds of change could also inspire new thinking regarding cannabis legalization.

Many of Britain’s former territories opted to keep the British monarch as their head of state following their independence. One example with which many Americans are familiar is Canada. The fact that Canada is a monarchy explains why the names of some Canadian government agencies include the prefix “royal” (for example, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and why Queen Elizabeth II adorns Canadian coins.

Until recently the situation in Barbados was similar to Canada’s, but on November 30, 2021, the island became a republic, bidding farewell to centuries of royal rule. The significance of the event went far beyond the change in the country’s form of government: For the first time in its history, Barbados’ head of state is a Barbadian, rather than a British king or queen.

In all likelihood, Barbados will be the first of several dominoes to fall in the Caribbean. The prime minister of Jamaica made it clear in March 2022 to a visiting Prince William that he hoped his country would soon follow Barbados’ lead. In April, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda told other royals that his country “should one day become a republic.”

What does this all have to do with cannabis?

To be sure, a republican wave will not by itself advance cannabis legalization in the Caribbean. Despite their links to the British monarchy, countries like Jamaica are independent, which is why they have a choice when it comes to their form of government in the first place. While the British monarch, through the governors-general she appoints, must still grant royal assent to these countries’ legislation, this is largely symbolic (though not necessarily in places that remain British Overseas Territories, as we explained in British Virgin Islands Cannabis: Trouble in Paradise).

At the same time, what is happening in the Caribbean could still have an impact on cannabis policy. The winds of change we described above might bring new perspectives on nationhood for the people of the region, including a reassessment of the legal status of cannabis.

The former British colonies of the Caribbean did not just inherit the British legal tradition when they became independent: Most remained part of the British legal system to some degree. To this day, the Judicial Committee of Privy Council in London serves as the highest court of appeal for several of the Caribbean’s independent countries.

When reviewing the drug laws (or indeed any laws) of the former British Caribbean, one cannot help but notice how much they resemble British laws, down to the typography and layout of the original documents. This is no coincidence of course: Many of the laws on the books trace their origins to colonial times. This is not to say that Caribbean nations are on legal autopilot when it comes to cannabis or any subject; however, a lasting deference to the legal framework established during British times is understandable (especially in countries that share a monarch with the United Kingdom).

It is beyond the remit of this blog to take a deep dive into attitudes toward cannabis in the former British Empire. However, by the 20th century, the somewhat more ambivalent views of days past had hardened, resulting in cannabis criminalization in places like Jamaica. As Barney Warf points out, “missionaries decried the ‘vile weed;’ and mounting official disapproval led to antimarijuana crusades, ostensibly on the grounds that its use increased crime rates.”

Another important development when it comes to cannabis in the Caribbean was the dramatic increase in immigration from the region to the UK following World War II. For some in the UK, this migratory wave was problematic, and cannabis was part of the problem. In 1951, the head of the country’s Drugs Branch warned that unless:

“something can be done … to stem the ‘invasion’ of unemployed coloured men (mostly British subjects) from Africa and the British West Indies [i.e., the Caribbean], we shall in a very short space of time be faced in this country with a serious hashish problem.”

It is hard to imagine that such views did not inform British colonial authorities in the Caribbean, contributing to prohibitionism. Keep in mind that in 1951 the British still ruled all of their now-former territories in the region.

As one journalist put it, Barbados’ decision to embrace republicanism is “more of an emotional, historic, symbolic decision than a practical one,” and this will likely be true of others that follow it. Yet the emotional changes could help bring about practical ones as well.

Going forward, expect the nations of the Caribbean to increasingly define their own voices and question the legacies of the past. In this environment of change, it will only be natural for these nations to revisit cannabis laws. To the extent that prohibitionist approaches are at odds with the realities of the region, they may look for more constructive models, which repudiate the stigmatization of cannabis use and allow their societies to integrate into the global cannabis economy.