Gone To Pot

With the air of the party guest in The Graduate who proclaims the “next big thing” – plastics – to Dustin Hoffman’s character, my friend assured me on his patio one night, “I’m telling you: oils are completely taking over. At the teenagers’ parties, half of them are doing it. All these younger captains of industry you read about, they all have vape pens in their car.”

It’s a new era of ganja in Jamaica, where ex-tech entrepreneurs, owners of rural land and retail locations, furtive blue-chip corporations, doctors, and suspicious Rastas and small farmers are jostling to get in on a green rush in the making. Medical cannabis is predicted to be a US$33 billion global market by 2024. Cannabis Licensing Authority chairman Cindy Lightbourne says that tax revenues in Jamaica “will surpass betting and gaming.” What’s intriguing is the sheer variety of ways Jamaica and its entrepreneurs might profit from it, as laws and puritanical prejudices loosen worldwide. You can grow the traditional plant/flower, okay. But you can also sell its oil for medicinal use for a pretty penny.

Physicians and medical tourism entrepreneurs and hotels can host wellness trips. You can be Balram Vaswani and open a retail location, where you charge a premium for a better quality product than consumers can buy on the street. Owners of small farms might host tours; if you are Carlo Less of Vibzen you are the boutique tour operator that takes tourists on a US$125-per-person visit to learn about all of Jamaica’s medicinal plants. After reaping the flower that makes people high, you can use the leftover stalks and leaves for 25,000 known hemp products, such as ‘hempcrete’ you can build with. If you’re already a skincare entrepreneur, you can compete against Perricone MD’s $55 two- ounce moisturizer. You can be Shalom Hodara and sell greenhouses to growers. Scientists can come up with breakthrough treatments using the plant, and pharmaceutical companies can market them. You can provide security services to the presently cash-only industry. You can be Douglas Gordon and host the leading conference on the industry in the Caribbean, Canex, with speakers like the ex-President of Mexico Vicente Fox, and also become a distributor for wellness cannabis products here and in overseas markets. As Gordon suggests too, you can create a magazine around the ganja lifestyle.

“I want ganja to save Jamaica,” says Canadian medical cannabis educator and industry advocate Irie Selkirk who grew up in Negril. “This is a really big pie. It will change the landscape. What we want to see is agriculture, industry; social change.”

Canadian Blaine Dowdle is the managing director of Itopia Life, which is farming one of the 80 acres it owns at Irie River in St Ann, and is aiming to become the first international cannabis company based in the Caribbean, opening up retail operations across the region. Its first location opens by December, designed by Samantha Gore, at Kingston’s 10A West Kings House Road, the creative home of the late director of The Harder They Come, Perry Henzell. Dowdle notes, “If 10% of Jamaicans use ganja daily — the government says 15% of the country used it last year — at the $1-$5 Jamaicans typically pay per gram, that’s at least US$109 million a year spent right now, just in that segment of the market. I estimate that Jamaicans now spend between $200 million and $400 million a year on ganja.”

The first retail outlet in Jamaica, Kaya, sells marijuana for US$10 a gram, and as already status-conscious Jamaicans earn more in a growing economy and begin to frequent retail outlets the way they might Starbucks, some will be willing to spend US$5 or $7 a gram for better quality product. Dowdle thinks that Jamaica can easily sustain 40-80 retail outlets, and convert US$100 million to legal sales.

Jamaica’s first consumer outlet, Kaya, opened by Balram Vaswani, is a ‘herb house’, an official designation that allows for on- premises consumption. (Otherwise you are a ‘dispensary’, which doesn’t, or you have a ‘therapeutic’ license, which means spas and topical treatments.) 

The Kaya complex right is off the new highway to Ocho Rios has a coffee shop, outdoor pizza oven, juice shop, dramatic high-end display tables by Tamara Harding and a bar whose countertop is a wing of the raffish ‘80s ganja-smuggling plane that sits