Jamaica anticipates a marijuana rush as decriminalisation looms -- but is it too late?

A farmer with his marijuana plants in Jamaica's central mountain town of Nine Mile. Photograph: David Mcfadden/AP

Hearing the drumbeat of the pro-marijuana lobby, you'd be excused if you believed the typical Jamaican was a Rastafarian pothead lazing on the beach amid the soporific sound of Bob Marley's One Love. Of course, most Jamaicans don't smoke pot, aren't Rastafarians and don't have access to many beaches.

The recently proposed decriminalisation of marijuana, widely called ganja by Jamaicans, has been long anticipated and much unfulfilled – like a World Cup goal by Wayne Rooney. Commissions and debates to review legislation on marijuana hark back to at least the 1970s, with the most comprehensive recommendations coming in 2001.

Jamaican governments haven't been known for their fortitude. Fearing those big-stick-wielding neighbours, the United States, would crack our backsides, politicians have avoided pressing the reset button on a law that has proved unwieldy, expensive and downright stupid. Seems they've finally grown a pair. And the fact that Washington state and Colorado have snubbed US federal law on smoking weed has undermined the Americans' moral authority as lecturer-in-chief.

Possession of a mere handful of marijuana has for decades clogged Jamaican courts with petty cases and distracted an undermanned police force from tackling the crime cartels pushing drugs and guns. What's worse, the criminalisation of marijuana possession has scarlet-lettered thousands of mainly poor young men with a police record that ruins their prospects of employment and migration, while exposing them to contagion with hardened offenders.

The declaration last week by the justice minister, Mark Golding, that the cabinet would be pressing ahead with legislative changes to make possession of as much as two ounces (0.057kg) of weed a mere ticketable offence, with no criminal record attached, is a welcome move that has been widely endorsed by Rastafarians, business leaders and even clerics of Jamaica's conservative churches.

However, the buzz over weed in the last year has triggered a wave of heady optimism. Michael Lorne, a Rastafarian lawyer, has vowed not to include Jamaican universities in plans for cultivation and research, for fear that middlemen will swipe the profits. Another Rastafarian advocate, Iyah V, called for Rastafarians and the poor to have exclusive rights to operate marijuana farms, and threatened to turn Jamaica upside down if "all of a sudden now when the legalisation aspect comes, some rich people come to take it over".

Humour them. That's all hollow bravado.

All the noise about Jamaica taking a hefty slice of the $2bn (£1.2bn) medical marijuana and hemp-manufacturing industries may be just that: noise. Decades of government intransigence over calls to liberalise the marijuana sector means that Jamaica is light years behind western Europe and the US in terms of establishing laboratory and research infrastructure, official distribution networks, finding merchants untainted by the criminal underworld, and an organised framework of governance. If this were an arms race, the sharpshooting drone would make toast of the rusty Jamaican six-shooter.

Don't bury Jamaica's dreams just yet, though. The little island has punched above its weight before in scientific research. Dr Albert Lockhart and Dr Manley West developed Canasol from cannabis for the treatment of glaucoma. Professor Henry Lowe, another long-time ganja researcher, has recently launched Medicanja in a bid to tap the medical marijuana and hemp markets.

Jamaican prospectors are sprinting at Usain Bolt-speed in the Great Green Gold rush of the Caribbean. The exaggerated script: pharmaceutical start-ups will concoct vials that can cure cancer, HIV and the common cold; weed plantations will sweep the countryside to supply ships docked at Kingston harbour en route to the US and Europe; and the Jamaican economy will shoot into the stratosphere.

Even with the flurry of marijuana conferences and lofty goal-setting, I think Jamaica may have joined the party too late. And there may even be greater delay in refining the legislation with policy pushback from anti-smoking lobbyists and security stakeholders concerned about crime syndicates spreading their wings.

Maybe the ganja growers are on to something big, and I'm just being a party pooper. Or perhaps the huffs and puffs of overhyped hope is because they're just stoned.