Obama tells Jamaicans to go easy on the 'ganja'

KINGSTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama waded into a hot topic in Jamaica on Thursday when he was asked for his views on pot, an item close to the hearts - and minds - of many people in this Caribbean nation famous for its local “ganja” crop.

U.S. President Barack Obama participates in a town hall meeting with young Caribbean leaders at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica April 9, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Obama chose the middle ground during a town hall of young leaders, saying jail was not the answer to the drug problem, but nor was legalization a “silver bullet.”

“A lot of folks think you know what, if we just legalize marijuana, then it will reduce the money flowing into the transnational drug trade, there are more revenues and jobs created. I have to tell you that it’s not a silver bullet,” he said.

Use of pot was decriminalised in Jamaica earlier this year, and is grown widely across the island, playing an important role in the Rastafarian movement popularized by the late Jamaican reggae music legend Bob Marley.

A big fan of Marley since high school, upon arrival in Jamaica Wednesday night Obama made an unannounced stop at the house in Kingston where the dreadlocked musician lived until his death in 1981.

Obama said the quick tour of the house was “one of the more fun meetings that I’ve had since I’ve been President.”

“I am a very strong believer that the path that we have taken in the United States in the so-called war on drugs has been so heavy in emphasizing incarceration that it has been counterproductive,” Obama told the audience.

Noting that two U.S. states have legalized marijuana, Colorado and Washington, Obama said the rest of the country was watching to see how that “experiment” works.

Obama also said he had discussed organised crime and the flow of guns, drugs and cash with Caribbean leaders.

Obama’s answer struck a chord with many in the audience.

Dontai Smith, 18, said Obama was right to point out the positive and negative aspects, saying she hoped “Jamaicans to use it positively,” instead of going down the darker path of addiction and violence.

“Marijuana can provide a way out for Jamaica. Jamaica ganja is known as the best,” said Tamara Campbell, 34, agreeing that it needed to be regulated.

Jamaica’s new law allows marijuana possession of up to 2 ounces (56.7 grams) for religious, medicinal and scientific purposes. Smoking marijuana, however, is still not allowed in public spaces.

Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson in Washington. Writing by David Adams. Editing by Andre Grenon