Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the CNN chief medical correspondent, has been on the front lines of a medical marijuana debate as he weighs the benefits of the drug against the risks.

Mental illness is a tragic reality that is portrayed in all mediums of storytelling. But, what if you could also use a story to show how effective cannabis could be in the treatment of mental illness? The idea of telling a story about the legalization of cannabis seems to be a fantastical notion to many, but it may not be as far-fetched as we think, especially if you consider the growing body of research that supports its medical benefits.

There have been blockades in the Fijian capital of Suva in recent weeks, and my Netflix has picked up on it. I saw a TV show called Cooking with Cannabis. Sure, there were a few hippies baked in, but the food was good. The show covered the complex and lucrative global cannabis industry, which is expected to reach $90.4 billion worldwide by 2026. Watching the program also got me thinking about Fiji’s economy as the country fights the second wave of the pandemic through containment and vaccination. Fiji has taken a big hit. According to the International Monetary Fund, by 2020, gross domestic product is down to about $4.3 billion and the growth rate is down 19%. Foreign tourists have disappeared, all non-traditional businesses have had to close their doors, and the much-talked-about Pacific tourism bubble is not going away. As the national debt rises, a nasty storm is brewing. Fiji needs to diversify its economy away from dependence on tourism. Despite the government’s attempts to provide assistance to Covid-affected families in the form of food rations and a $90 emergency benefit, these well-intentioned initiatives appear to have been unsuccessful. Many people complained that calls to the food helpline went unanswered or packages never arrived. In addition, the need for Fijians to provide tax information in order to receive benefits has led to the exclusion of those working in the informal sector. This is where cannabis opens up new possibilities. The cannabis industry in Fiji will not be limited to the cultivation of the plant. An entire value chain can be created. Marijuana or saba (pronounced samba, yes, like the dance) is currently illegal in Fiji. But, of course, the leaf has grown. One of my favorite stories in 2020 was about villagers who shot down police drones with spears to hide their marijuana plantations in Kadavu, an island south of Suva. In a four-week operation, police managed to remove a crop with a street value of 86 million futures (A$50 million) – the largest seizure in the country’s history. But it seems ironic that at a time when some families can’t afford to put food on the table, this now illegal crop worth millions of dollars is being culled. Over-reliance on tourism, which before the pandemic accounted for almost 40% of Fiji’s GDP, has led to economic losses. The revitalisation of the agricultural sector is an area that the Government of Fiji believes needs to be strengthened. Fiji has a strong history of agricultural exports. In the 1970s, sugar exports accounted for 70% of the country’s export earnings. Yakona (kava) has recently been seen as a growth opportunity in the industry, as it is widely used in the region for relaxation and stress relief. Unfortunately, it takes several years before the yacon can be harvested. Like other agricultural products, the product is subject to an increased risk of environmental damage, such as hurricanes. But weeds are different. As the name suggests, cannabis is a hardy plant that can be harvested after only three months. As the spearhead incident shows, things are growing well in Fiji. Fiji’s ideal climate, remote islands that can be used as a quarantine for cannabis cultivation, and world-renowned brand name offer special opportunities for economic diversification. Just look at the water in Fiji. The idea of establishing a marijuana industry in Fiji is not new. The idea was last discussed at the Nadi Chamber of Commerce roundtable meeting in March. In response, the government has categorically stated that it has no intention of legalizing marijuana. But legalization doesn’t have to mean we all love cannabis. Fiji could follow the example of other countries and legalise medical marijuana and hemp fibre production, but ban recreational use. This initiative would build on similar schemes in countries such as Malawi, Lesotho and Uganda, as well as Thailand, in Southeast Asia. Surveillance cameras show marijuana growers at the Rak Jang farm in Thailand on the 25th. March 2021 (Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images) word-image-2787 A licensing system could be introduced for marijuana cultivation on some of Fiji’s islands. The government could also set up a state-owned company to manage production – after all, there is already the Fiji Sugar Corporation, so why not the Fiji Cannabis Co? The cannabis industry in Fiji will not be limited to the cultivation of the plant. A whole value chain could be created, for example by producing hemp fibres (Fiji’s clothing industry has also felt the effects of Covid) and laboratories to extract the valuable CBD oil used to relieve pain and various other ailments. All of this can be done in Fiji and create jobs for Fijians. There are fears that partial legalisation will lead to an increase in recreational cannabis use among the population. It cannot be ruled out, but the same slippery slope argument can be applied to tobacco and alcohol as gateways to addiction. Those who love the Saba will take it anyway, whether it is legal or not. It is these types of risks that the government must address through responsible regulation and enforcement. From a business perspective, Fiji has the potential to become a pioneer in the cannabis industry in the region. First, research and feasibility studies should be conducted to determine the viability and opportunities that the cannabis industry can provide. From that we can draw a more accurate conclusion about what needs to be done to regulate it. And it is perhaps the volatility of the pandemic that can be the catalyst for Fiji to diversify its economy in innovative ways and create a new export market for itself.

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