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For the purposes of IDPC’s regional work, the Caribbean includes the following countries: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, French Guyana, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Montserrat, Puerto Rico, St. Eustacia and Montserrat, Saint Barts, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, and the US Virgin Islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix.
The Caribbean region produces relatively small amounts of cannabis, notably cannabis herb, which are primarily consumed within the region. Jamaica is the largest cannabis producer and exporter in the region, although production has decreased over the last decade. Read more.
During the 1970s the Caribbean became a major transit area for cocaine trafficking from its then prevailing source, Colombia. Regional links with the United States and Western Europe, coupled with the Caribbean’s coastline, which is extensive and sporadically monitored, provided opportunities for cocaine traffickers to expand the market throughout the 1980s. Approximately 10% of US-bound cocaine was estimated to be trafficked through the region mostly on speedboats, cargo containers or privately-owned fishing craft. ‘Narcoplanes’ (light aircraft carrying drugs) were also often used to traffic cocaine through the region. The Dominican Republic’s National Drug Council estimated that in 2007 at least 200 planes flew over the country releasing thousands of pounds of cocaine at a time. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, the Bahamas remains a major transit location for cocaine and Jamaican cannabis.
The Caribbean-South Florida route continues to be active although it is currently less used than the Central America-Mexico route. However, since Honduras stepped up its counter-narcotics pressure in 2013, drug flights to Central America have dropped by a third. With this, the Caribbean-South Florida route has regained popularity with traffickers, with an increase in cocaine imports into the United States from the Caribbean islands from 4% in 2011 to 16% in 2013. The Dominican Republic is a notable nation for drug trafficking. After a decrease at the beginning of the 21st century, the country recorded an increase in cocaine seizures between 2005 and 2010 and retains its importance as a transit route for cocaine from South to Northern America, as well as to European markets. There is also evidence that trafficking routes are shifting to the small island nations of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, including Saint Lucia, Montserrat, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Saint Lucia is a particular vector for cocaine from South America into Martinique for onward shipment to metropolitan France and then throughout Europe. The Netherland Antilles have also seen an increase in the number of travellers transporting cocaine and heroin to the Netherlands. Read more.
Cannabis is the most widely used drug in the Caribbean, with high rates of use across the islands. With the expansion of the cocaine market in the 1980s and the Caribbean’s location on the cocaine transhipment route, the region saw a rapid increase in cocaine dependence, particularly in its smokeable form commonly referred to as “crack” cocaine. A recent study of student drug use reported that the highest levels of cocaine use were in Guyana, Jamaica and Haiti. The use of other drugs is estimated to be relatively low and injecting drug use is rare in the region with the exception of the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico, where there are some 15,000 people who inject drugs, primarily using opiates but the injection of “speed balls” (cocaine and heroin) is common in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Regional Drug Policies
The Caribbean is second only to Sub-Saharan Africa as the region of the world most affected by HIV/AIDS. Outside of the DR, HIV transmission is primarily sexually transmitted. In a region that is highly homophobic, governments minimise the impact of male on male HIV transmission and continue to erroneously attribute the bulk of the HIV infections to “unprotected heterosexual intercourse“. There have been repeated calls to update the official position regarding the disaggregation of infections by behaviours but to date this has not been achieved, largely due to politics and ideology.
Injecting drug use is the most common cause of HIV transmission in Puerto Rico. There is growing evidence that the sexual transmission of HIV in the region is linked with crack cocaine use. In a 2007 study conducted by CDARI in St Lucia, high levels of HIV were found in the crack using population as compared to the non-crack using control group. The HIV epidemic in the non-IDU crack smoking population is fuelled by high numbers of sex partners, unprotected sex and the immuno-depressive impact of cocaine on the system.
Although the region has HIV and drug policies, these continue to be administered separately rather than following an integrated approach. While National AIDS programmes are relatively progressive in their work with key populations, national drug councils are abstinence based, high threshold, 'just say no' programmes that reject harm reduction as encouraging drug use. Few countries have given attention and support to the development of harm reduction measures within national policies. Puerto Rico is the only Caribbean territory to have functioning Needle and Syringe Programmes (NSPs) with 13 sites based in the capital city San Juan. It is also the only country in the region to provide OST, with 6 OST sites, 1 of which is situated in a prison. Non-Injecting Drug users are not seen as a vulnerable population for targeted HIV prevention measures.
Criminal justice system
The illicit use of controlled drugs in the Caribbean region is treated exclusively as a criminal justice issue and use often leads to incarceration; the term ‘zero tolerance’ is a commonly used expression in the region's political rhetoric. Fuelled in part by the expansion in crack cocaine consumption since the mid-1980s, criminal justice systems across the Caribbean have, according to St. Lucia’s Caribbean Drug and Alcohol Treatment Institute, seen a great increase in drug cases. Policies heavily focused on the criminalisation of people who use drugs, small-time dealers or petty drug-related crimes have produced a strain on a criminal justice system lacking a robust alternative to incarceration and has led to massive prison overcrowding which strains the capacity of national authorities.
The harms associated with drug trafficking are often exacerbated when countries have low GDP per capita or poor social infrastructure. Haiti, which ranks as one of the top ten most fragile states globally, and the poorest in the Americas, has suffered devastating effects due corruption and poor governance which has allowed it to be used as a cocaine trafficking route further contributing to the increase in crime and police corruption. The Caribbean region also suffers from high murder rates, and research by the World Bank and UNODC indicates that the growth of the international drug trade in the region is associated with rising rates of homicide, firearm proliferation, violence, kidnapping and property-related crime.
Although on a smaller scale than the drug cartels of Mexico and Colombia, the Caribbean's illicit drug trade can still create violent criminal groups that bring high levels of insecurity. In Jamaica in 2010, attempts by the security forces to arrest a powerful local drug dealer Christopher ‘dudus’ Coke led to the deaths of 73 people, some believed to be civilians. Due to an increase in cocaine being trafficked through the Dominican Republic the drug trade has become more volatile and has been associated with increasing levels of homicide. The inefficient and poorly resourced criminal justice systems must be reformed in order to enhance law enforcement initiatives, abolish corruption and instil public confidence in the law. This is now occurring in some countries in the Caribbean region.
The Dominican Republic is in the process of reforming its prison system and has recently established the Centre of Excellence on Prison Reform and Drug Demand Reduction in Santo Domingo. The centre works with UNODC in an attempt to strengthen the country’s criminal justice system through more effective policies and training programmes. It focuses on exploring alternatives to imprisonment, modernising the system in line with international standards. Despite this progress, the Dominican Republic remains the most repressive of regimes in terms of its policies toward the use of drugs.
The Organisation of American States (OAS) through the Inter-American Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) has encouraged Caribbean countries to adopt drug courts as part of a campaign to provide alternatives to imprisonment in the region. Although alternatives to incarceration should be welcome and encouraged, evidence has shown that drug courts often pose major problems and can sometimes be counterproductive. This is particularly the case with the CICAD programme which is strongly influence by the US model of drug courts. For more information, please click here.
Another more positive development, however, is the recent move by CARICOM to open a serious debate on the decriminalisation of cannabis use across the region.
Caribbean countries are known for their expansive coastlines, but many do not have the necessary law enforcement capacity required to patrol their vast territorial waters, which are often used for drug trafficking. Smuggling through high-speed boats has been a major issue in the region as they are often difficult to detect and intercept. The use of small planes throwing bundles of cocaine onto the islands has also been a predominant trafficking method for many years. In an attempt to counter these 'narcoplanes', in 2009 the Dominican Republic purchased eight Brazilian-made “Super Tucanos”- fast, agile, single-engine turboprop aircraft. Reports from the Air Force contend that drug flights from South America to the area have significantly decreased with many no longer even entering the island's air space.
The USA has promised financial and technical assistance to the Caribbean region in an effort to stem trafficking of controlled drugs in the region. The Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) was launched by President Obama in 2009, designed to arm and train local law enforcement officials, improve their infrastructure and increase local community awareness of drug trafficking in the region. Promises of direct grants and financial aid have not met the expectations of the recipient countries.
The 10th European Development Fund (EDF) has earmarked almost 10million Euro in direct cash support to the CARICOM (the Carribean Community) Secretariat to support both demand reduction and supply reduction. This earmark has been available since the inception of the 10th EDF (2008) but the CARICOM Secretariat has not yet been able to produce a suitable “PIF” in which to access the funds.
In its new strategic plan, CARICOM IMPACS (Implementation Agency for Crime and Security) called for a review of Caribbean drug policy to bring it more in line with current evidence and international trends.
Rights of indigenous people
Cannabis was introduced to the Caribbean in the mid-19th century by Indian labourers whose customs supported its use as a medicine and as a religious sacrament. These beliefs were adopted by members of the Rastafarian religious community. In Jamaica, which has the largest number of members of the Rastafarian religion cannabis use is widely smoked and tolerated but remains illegal despite the findings of the “Ganja Commission” which recommended its decriminalization. The island government claims that legalising even small amounts of cannabis for personal use would violate the international drug control treaties Jamaica and bring sanctions from its US neighbour.
For more information regarding drug policy in the Caribbean, please click here.
IDPC Members in the Caribbean
For a full list of IDPC members in the Caribbean, please click here:
- First Caribbean Drug Policy Forum
- 2013 International Cannabis Conference
- No health, no help: Abuses in drug rehabilitation centers in Latin American and the Caribbean
- Women in prison: The devastating impact of rising incarceration in the Americas
- Childhood that matters: The impact of drug policies on children and adolescents with imprisoned mothers and fathers in Latin America and the Caribbean