These are high times for travelers who equate Caribbean vacations with the opportunity to enjoy marijuana’s pungent aromas and intoxicating impact.
Weed decriminalization is advancing across the region, with more islands poised to officially welcome the relaxed atmosphere under which some visitors have enjoyed cannabis use for years.
Earlier this month Grenada legislators announced the country’s cabinet of ministers is reviewing proposed legislation to decriminalize marijuana use. Late last year Keith Mitchell, Grenada’s prime minister, the country will create a model for local marijuana cultivation and distribution.
Since 2014, Bermuda, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis and the U.S. Virgin Islands have all either approved or enacted legislation to decriminalize the use of small amounts of marijuana. Barbados and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have also approved medical cannabis cultivation in recent years.
When Jamaica’s government decriminalized marijuana in 2015, Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica’s tourism minister, said “cannabis-infused tourism” had a place in Jamaica’s product mix, alongside all-inclusive resorts and mass tourism. Indeed, organized “ganja tours” are available in Jamaica and other Caribbean countries.
Ganja tours are available in Jamaica and other Caribbean countries. (photo by Jim Byers)
Nevertheless, marijuana decriminalization in the region culminates a long period during which the drug was illegal yet easily available on several islands, often in areas frequented by vacationers.
“More and more Caribbean islands are making major policy decisions to decriminalize marijuana use for limited amounts and to cease arresting people possessing weed for personal or sacramental purposes,” said Kelly Fontenelle, founder of the Travel Advisors Selling the Caribbean (TASC) advisors’ group.
“This move points to a potentially more welcoming landscape in the Caribbean for cannabis tourism,” she said. “But restrictions in local laws regarding open and public consumption still pose challenges, and more legal reforms are needed to regulate the social consumption of pot.”
As Fontenelle and others acknowledged, a subset of American travelers clearly associate Caribbean vacations with an easygoing tolerance for marijuana use.
“Most people come to the Caribbean and they anticipate smoking weed,” said Terrence Nelson, a longtime U.S. Virgin Islands legislator.
Indeed, some longtime Caribbean travel professionals see decriminalization as a positive development for travelers as well as Caribbean communities. “I believe that [decriminalization] may make visitors feel more safe in these destinations that are taking positive steps to lessen the crime rate and create more transparency,” said Nicole Barrett, founder and CEO of Espy Global: Travel Marketing Solutions.
Yet despite its image among some travelers, marijuana use remains controversial in several Caribbean nations. The region’s laid-back character belies a mostly socially conservative populace, and many Caribbean citizens do not appreciate the ganja-loving reputation with which their countries are sometimes associated.
“I want to make it abundantly clear that my government is not advocating the use of cannabis,” said Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, in announcing the decriminalization of marijuana in 2018.
“We do accept, though that marijuana utilized in different forms has significant medicinal benefits and certainly we’ll move pretty quickly to ensure that we legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.”
Marijuana decriminalization in the region is increasing for many of the same reasons the legislative change is underway in several states in the U.S.: cannabis usage is viewed less harshly compared with past generations, as more Caribbean officials acknowledge marijuana’s medicinal benefits.
Also as in the U.S., Caribbean governments in search of ancillary revenue channels view marijuana as a potentially significant revenue source.
“I expect that this will offer a nice change to the islands economically as it can create situations for new businesses, job creation and tourism opportunities,” said Stephen Scott, founder and CEO of Travel Hub 365.
Scott also sees Caribbean weed decriminalization as a draw for certain travelers. “Just last week we helped a client find a hotel in Colorado that was marijuana-friendly and to my surprise, it was easier than I thought it would be,” he said.
“It won’t be long before we get a request like that for Grenada or any other Caribbean islands looking to make these changes,” said Scott. “It’s a positive tourism situation for sure.”
However, there’s still a lot of ground to cover before Caribbean tourism marketing organizations actively promote marijuana as an attraction alongside the sea, sun, sand and regional cultures.
“At a time when the Caribbean is looking to rebuild its tourism product, cannabis tourism presents a myriad of opportunities and new experiences to help differentiate the tourism product, in an ever-competitive marketplace,” said Fontenelle.
“However, there is still a stigma against cannabis use in many sectors of Caribbean society,” she warned. “Significant public education will be required at all levels, for some stakeholders to recognize the full potential for new jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities as the use of recreational cannabis grows throughout the Caribbean region.”