HOW CANNABIS GOT TO THE ISLAND
Cannabis culture is nowhere on earth more closely linked than Jamaican culture. Join us on a time travel journey to discover the true origins of cannabis culture in Jamaica. We have the really dope stories, so light up a spliff or a bowl of whatever you love, because it’s time to go Rasta. Like most former colonial territories of the British Empire, the island’s history is dominated by genocide, oppression and slavery. The arrival of cannabis in Jamaica is certainly not owed to the Empire; instead, the sacred herb was brought by Indian contract workers in the mid-19th century. In 1810, British slavery was abolished after at least 200 years of human trafficking, although most Irish historians argue that it lasted more than 700 years. West African slaves were regularly shipped to Jamaica to work on the sugar plantations until 1838, when a slave revolt finally led to liberation. Plantation owners no longer claimed an infinite supply of labor and faced a crisis. The imperialists had a big problem. A problem that was remedied by hardly anything better. From 1845-1917, some 40,000 Indian contract workers were sent to Jamaica to work on the land. To ease their burden, hashish was all they had and it was these poor souls who planted the first cannabis seeds in Jamaican soil.
The origin of the term “ganja” can be found in Sanskrit. Hindi Indians brought cannabis seeds and the name of the herb to the Caribbean. A fusion of Indian and African culture on the island gave birth to the Jamaican ganja culture, and the popularity of cannabis among the lower classes was quickly used as a tool against the indigenous population, and killed by the imperialist ruling class. The Opium Act of 1913 specifically prohibited ganja. The legislation targeted the poor weed-smoking Jamaicans, and the penalty for possessing a little weed was “a fine not exceeding one hundred pounds and, in case of default, imprisonment with or without forced labor,” which in 2017 is roughly equivalent to €12000. Needless to say, many poor black Jamaicans went down for this, for nothing. In 1948, the government was rocked by an emerging religious movement that had an affinity for ganja, despite the criminalization. The result was the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1948. This class warfare law allowed courts to legally imprison pot smokers and/or take away all their property. The repugnant section of the law concerning ganja states that an offender “upon conviction by a Circuit Court, shall, at the discretion of the court, be punished by a fine of not less than $500 per ounce of ganja or be sentenced to a term of imprisonment not exceeding thirty-five years or be punished by both a fine and imprisonment.”
The change did not deter people, however, and ganja became intertwined with Jamaican culture. The roots of Rastafari culture in Jamaica can be found in the 1930s, and the culture is certainly not just a religion, but also a movement. Marcus Garvey, a native Jamaican, and the Black Power movement certainly had a great influence. However, the leader of the Rastas was the “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, The Heroic Lion from the Tribe of Judah,” Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. He held power from 1930-1974 until he died. Before he ascended the throne in 1930 his title was Ras (King) Tafari and by “the highest” is still referred to a Christian figure in Rasta culture. The Rasta holy book is also the Bible, although it is seen as unreal, and Zion (Ethiopia) is the “promised land.” Materialistic Western society is rejected and named as “Babylonia.” Like Christ, the emperor was also a leader of a number of monotheistic religions and radical political movements. Creating a unity of original Africans and raising consciousness were the core goals, and that is what the Jamaican government was very afraid of. Rastafari culture is much more than dreadlocks and ganja. Rastas have developed their own language that is in line with their uplifting philosophy and emphasizes the power of words. A Rasta will not want to cause negative effects with his/her words. The Rastafari does not use words like “understand” or “undertake”; a Rasta puts a positive spin on “under” with “overstand” and “overtake”. Adding “I” before words is also typical of Rasta language and creating new meanings is also common; the English banana is “inana”. The “I” stands for Jah (God) and its addition to words in the Rastafari vernacular establishes a divine connection to a higher power. By its very nature, ganja is a sacrament for the Rastafari – even passing the sacred herb in a certain direction has a meaning for the Rastas. A “reasoning” session is a therapeutic ganja group smoking session and a connection with Jah all in one. Passing ganja clockwise is usually associated with discussing moral dilemmas/problems, while passing a spliff counterclockwise indicates the use of war language. Ganja also plays an important role in Rasta ceremonies. A “binghi” or “grounation” is basically a Rasta holiday and celebration. Ganja consumption here is accompanied by a mix of song, dance and prayer.
Bob Marley became a legend during his own lifetime, he was that rare mix of Artist and Advocate that occurs once in a generation. After his birth in 1945, his childhood spent in Nine Mile and his teenage years in Trenchtown, he grew into a cultural icon. It was sometime in the 1960s when Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh developed the Reggae sound and formed a band in Trenchtown. Bob had been born a Catholic but converted to Rastafarianism in 1966. This was a turning point in Bob’s life; the wonderful connection of music and marijuana would shoot him to stardom ever since. The influence of the legend is still strong in the 21st century. On February 26, 2015, the day Bob Marley would have turned 70, ganja was no longer criminalized in Jamaica, and as a fitting tribute, medicinal and religious use was finally legalized as well. And while we’re on the subject of legalization, let’s also discuss a few little facts. Did you know that the famous Bob Marley song “legalize it” is actually a jam by Peter Josh and was written and performed in 1979, about five years after The Wailers broke up? Well, that’s right, and we didn’t know that before either.
As a result of the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act 2015, a historic ceremony was held on April 29, 2015 at the University of the West Indies. A cannabis plant was legally planted in the ground for the first time in Jamaican history. Somehow, the new legislation is unlikely to have a major impact on average Jamaican ganja consumption, nor will the legislation lead to a huge increase in new ganja smokers. Instead, this legalization is the first step toward an active legal cannabis market, and although international treaty obligations still block the way to global trade, a national industry can still flourish. Tourists contribute largely to the Jamaican economy, and new ganja-friendly accommodations and vacations are on the rise. The “Bud & Breakfast” concept is already very popular among tourists from the US. Jamaica is at the beginning of a green revolution that has the potential to make this small island a major player in the emerging global ganja market.