Marijuana plants. Photo by: Mark / CC BY

UNITED NATIONS — Countries are being asked to raise domestic resources, reform policies, and find ways to fund the Sustainable Development Goals. St. Vincent and the Grenadines has chosen a rather unorthodox approach to help it fulfill its obligations: legalizing medicinal marijuana and working to make it an export crop.

“Everyone is not developing at the same pace. Everyone doesn’t have the same needs, and the mix of financing for development can’t be imposed from above in a one-size-fits-all manner. We have to tailor it to everyone’s specificities,” said Camillo Gonsalves, St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ minister of finance, economic planning, sustainable development, and information technology.

“Everyone doesn’t have the same needs, and the mix of financing for development can’t be imposed from above in a one-size-fits-all manner.”

— Camillo Gonsalves, St. Vincent and the Grenadines finance minister

St. Vincent and the Grenadines has taken steps toward meeting the SDGs. It set up a Zero Hunger Trust Fund that is funded by a tax on mobile telephone calls and data usage. The fund supports school lunches, school books, vision tests for children, food support for vulnerable elderly people, job training, and job placement programs. The government also set up a national contingencies fund, supported by an extra 1% tax on consumption, which will serve as a response mechanism to natural disasters. If unneeded for several years, the fund could be spent on resilience building.

But now, they’re also looking to marijuana — a crop that has long been cultivated illegally in the mountainous, central part of the largest island. Not only was the crop illegal, but increased cultivation led to more trees being cut down, causing environmental degradation that exacerbated the impact of storms.

“So here we have a profitable crop. We have a skilled workforce, but their practices are not only destructive but are multiplying the cost of our post disaster response,” Gonsalves told Devex.

After reviewing public opinion and treaty obligations, St. Vincent and the Grenadines decided to legalize marijuana for medicinal use. Given the small population, the government knew there wouldn’t be much of a domestic market, so it focused on exporting the crop.

Over the past year, the government has created an administrative framework that governs the licensing, regulation, and cultivation of cannabis and is currently selecting entities that will receive licenses to grow the crop. The country has put a cap on the amount of land that can be under cultivation for medical cannabis and will require all licensee companies to contribute annually to the national Zero Hunger Trust Fund.

“The theory is if you're planting something that’s not food, you’re going to make a contribution to the food security of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, so there is a specific set aside again to the goal two target of the Sustainable Development Goals,” Gonsalves said.

The country is also building in incentives and will favor companies in the licensing process that are interested in processing marijuana in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and exporting the extracts or byproducts, rather than shipping buds and leaves overseas.

“If we do that not only will we be creating employment, not only will we be creating revenue, but we will lure some of the illicit farmers out of the hills to grow the crop in a regulated manner on land that is not going to increase our vulnerability to climate change,” Gonsalves said.

Incentives will seek to get more locals involved, including requirements about how many locals must be hired, and giving amnesty to current growers to bring them into the new system. The new industry will also be taxed based on the volume of exports and the type of product they are exporting, which will grow the tax base and help fund development, he said.

The decision hasn’t been without some pushback — from those who wanted marijuana fully legalized and are concerned that the poor are typically arrested related to marijuana violations while the rich could be making a handsome profit, to the religious community that opposes any type of decriminalization of drugs, Gonsalves said.

“We've had very, very extensive consultations and the law has been subject to debate for well over a year, and we think were in the sweet spot of what people find acceptable,” he said.

The country’s cannabis authority is up and running and reviewing licenses and doing the necessary background checks. The first licenses should be awarded in May, with further permitting for their facilities done by the end of June when the first seeds can be planted.

Marijuana crops take between three and six months to mature, depending on the type of plant, so the first exports should begin by the end of 2019 or beginning of 2020.

“The prime minister has made very clear there is no pot of gold at the end of this medicinal marijuana rainbow, but … in any developing country and particularly in small island developing states, there has to be a diversification of the pillars on which we base our economy,” Gonsalves said. “So this is a new and additional pillar but it’s not that St. Vincent and the Grenadines is suddenly going to become weed island. It’s just something else that we hope will add to the employment and the foreign exchange and revenue of the country in addition to all the other things that we're already doing.”

Gonsalves suggested that other countries also look at their own circumstances to see what might work for them.

“What traditionally has happened is that we speak to development agencies about what our next steps should be, development agencies located in capitals of the United States or in Europe that have kind of worked it out on their computer and they say what you need to do is reform your way to the SDGs without ever understanding where you are in the reform process,” he said.

While some of the recommendations to improve institutions, crack down on corruption, or improve doing business indicators may be things a country can improve on, those recommendations aren’t going to get most countries to where they need to be, Gonsalves said.

“We need money to get where we want to go, we need money to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and we need new thinking to get people to work and retool people to meet the challenges of modern development and modern living,” he said. “This is something that’s done if you think about where you are and the specificities of your circumstance instead of adopting views from on high.”

Countries need to have the space for creativity and to see what solutions they might come up with, Gonsalves said.

“If we have that space instead of trying to fit into a straightjacket that a bright economist thought up in Washington, D.C., I think there may be more opportunities for growth and development in developing countries, not just island states,” he said.

About the author

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    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.