KINGSTON, Jamaica — This tourist mecca may soon be known as the Colorado of the Caribbean.
Given the ready availability of "ganja" as the locals call it, many outsiders assume marijuana is already legal in Jamaica, but it's not ... yet.
Encouraged by legalized marijuana in Colorado, Washington state and Uruguay — the first country to legalize and regulate the weed — Jamaican farmers and some politicians want to capitalize on what already is a homegrown industry with an international brand.
Dreadlocked Rastafarians and farmers gathered in downtown Kingston in April to launch Jamaica's Ganja Future Growers and Producers Association. The only thing missing was the smoke. They listened to speakers from Jamaica, the United States and Canada about the benefits of the drug and the need to get on the bandwagon for the marijuana industry.
The push isn't to outdo Colorado since Jamaica's link to ganja is already well known, largely because of the popularity of the late reggae superstar Bob Marley.
"The time has come to provide an opportunity for Jamaicans to benefit from the marijuana industry," said Angela Brown Burke, Kingston's mayor and a Parliament senator. Her husband, Paul Burke, is program director of the recently launched ganja association and is general secretary of the PNP, the government's ruling party.
Phillip Paulwell, the leader of government business in the House of Representatives, declared that ganja will be decriminalized this year for possession of small amounts of the drug.
Among the speakers at the launch of the ganja association was Josh Stanley, a Colorado producer of the Charlotte's Web strain of medicinal marijuana and a cannabis activist. He encouraged Jamaica to become a leader in the ganja industry and cited many economic and social benefits that the drug has brought to Colorado.
The motivation behind the legal pot drive is largely economic. Jamaica's economy has suffered from slow growth, high unemployment (now 13.4%) and high debt for the last two decades, according to the World Bank.
Jamaica, where an estimated 37,066 acres grow marijuana, is the largest Caribbean supplier of pot to the U.S. and other Caribbean islands, according to the State Department's 2014 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.
Most Jamaicans are not against ganja. According to a national survey last year, 66% claim to have smoked it, and 85% strongly favor the creation of medicinal products extracted from it.
Buoyed by the survey, Medicanja, Jamaica's first medicinal marijuana company, was launched in December.
Dayton Campbell, a physician and member of Parliament, does not oppose the medicinal use of marijuana, but he is against smoking it "because of the harmful effects on the body (such as) alterations in mental capacity, especially on the developing brain.
"I do believe it may boost our economy, but I don't think we should sacrifice our human capital to gain the marijuana dollar," Campbell said.
If ganja is decriminalized, "the impact (on) tourist arrivals would be enormous," Archibald McDonald, head of the Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Research Task Force in Kingston, told USA TODAY, adding he was not speaking for the task force. "This will provide the growth in GDP that we need so badly."
The Jamaica Cannabis Conference, organized by the task force and held in late May, released a statement declaring "there is no plausible reason" why industry regulations cannot be in place by the end of September, warning: "Wake up Jamaica, our opportunities are slipping away."
But not everyone thinks ganja is the way to go.
"We can do other stuff without marijuana to increase our tourist arrivals" such as build water parks, said Owayne Bolton, a manager at the Hilton in Montego Bay.
Others, such as farmer Clinel Robinson, 69, a small-crop ganja grower, think legalization would boost tourism.
"Thousands — if they know they can come into a ganja field and police wouldn't arrest them — they would come," he said. "Hotels would be full of people. Everybody would benefit."