by Diana on 26/02/2015 | Legal & Politics

Jamaica and Ganja: One Love, One Heart

When we think of Jamaica, many things spring to mind. Some are directly reminiscent of paradise, with fine sandy beaches and Caribbean waters, surrounded by everything and nothing. Others still remind us of our dear, and long-departed, Bob Marley. But not all islands are paradise and not all paradises hold legends. Jamaica is lucky to be able to boast both, however, and now, when it seemed that there could be no better ending to this story, the recent legalisation of cannabis for religious and medicinal ends has put the cherry on the cake.


When we think of Jamaica, many things spring to mind. Some are directly reminiscent of paradise, with fine sandy beaches and Caribbean waters, surrounded by everything and nothing. Others still remind us of our dear, and long-departed, Bob Marley. But not all islands are paradise and not all paradises hold legends.

Jamaica is lucky to be able to boast both, however, and now, when it seemed that there could be no better ending to this story, the recent legalisation of cannabis for religious and medicinal ends has put the cherry on the cake.

La marihuana, considerada sagrada por los rastafaris.AP
Marijuana, considered sacred by Rastafarians. AP.

The permission of marijuana for medicinal ends did not come as a huge surprise. It is pretty obvious that the wide-ranging benefits it brings, both on a physical and emotional level, to a person who is ill, are so extensive that prohibiting it was bound to end up seeming absurd, irrational and incoherent.

What is striking however, to a certain part of society, is the fact that Jamaica is the first country to specify that with the new regulation, marijuana is tolerated for religious motives. And not because it’s a bad thing; quite the contrary. There are many religions, especially folk religions, that use psychotropic substances in their rituals. It is simply striking because the boorish and unimaginative laws of Spain, this constitutional state of ours, make us unaccustomed to spiritual undertones or in fact anything that isn’t written in legal codes and State official gazettes. In general, the possibility of legalising cannabis in any country is more associated with its ability to treat illness (something which has been scientifically demonstrated), than to any belief or faith than an individual could profess.

Marijuana in the Rastafarian movement

If we take a look a long way back in time, we see that Jamaica and marijuana have always had a close relationship. Rastafarians practice a spiritual movement based on the belief that Haile Selassie I, who was Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, was the third incarnation of Jah, or God.

Haile Selassie I
Haile Selassie I

One of the principal precepts of Rastafarians is to stay on a path straight and true, and always treat their fellow men kindly and as brothers.  Another is the sacred use of marijuana, which plays a central role in the practice of their faith. Rastafarians see ganja as an ideal way to connect with their consciousness and in that way come closer to their god, Jah, because, according to Rastafarian beliefs, remains of the plant were found on King Solomon’s tomb.

For Rastafarians, the herb is considered to be a manifestation of the divine and its consumption during rituals is simply a way to access higher levels of spirituality.

While it is clear that the use of marijuana is not an obligation to those who consider themselves Rastafarian, it is generally regarded as a positive act of healing, revelation and adoration.  It is part of their liturgy, and consuming it represents a show of respect for their creator. For them, it is seen simply as a sacrament.

This sheds light as to why the recent regulation is centred on medicinal and also religious use. Clearly not all Jamaicans are Rastafarians (nor are all Rastafarians Jamaican). Nonetheless, the Jamaican government saw the fact that a large section of society is part of the Rastafarian movement and sets great store by marijuana for its rites as reason enough to draw up and register a regulation in law.

Jamaica brings a new angle to the legalisation of cannabis

In June 2014, Jamaica started to draw the outlines of what would be the new cannabis regulation when it approved an amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act. This amendment included a significant change, adding an important section dedicated to the Rastafarian movement and to the use it makes of marijuana.

Mark Golding, Ministro de Justicia de Jamaica
Mark Golding, Jamaica’s Minister of Justice

This was the first step. In fact, according to Mark Golding, Jamaica’s Minister of Justice, “the proposed changes provide a more enlightened approach to the drugs problem, taking into account the possession of small quantities of ganja for personal use, use in private spaces and for medicinal purposes, as well as decriminalisation for its use as a religious sacrament”.

Marijuana is referred to as ‘ganja’ and, although deeply rooted in Jamaican culture, it is illegal. It was made illegal in 1913, according to Maxine Stowe, International Consultant of the Rastafari Millennium Council, in the context of complex situations in the hemp industry in terms of its trade and industrialisation, “although culturally, its illegality emerged in the United States”.

In Stowe’s words “at that time, when Mexico and other Caribbean cultures merged with the Afro-American movement, it was determined that this plant would be illegal and regarded as a prohibited substance”.

“The prohibition was directly associated with black people, not with any negative aspect of the plant”, she adds. “It made sense then that the Rastafarian culture emerged in the 1930s and asked for its legalisation”.

Dictated by law

Mr Golding says that the measure is set to establish an authority to issue licences and coordinate the standards necessary for cultivation, distribution and sale of marijuana for medicinal, scientific and therapeutic purposes. “We have to put ourselves in a position where we can make the most of the significant advantages offered by this emerging industry” he says.

Los rastafaris han pedido durante décadas la legalización de la ganja.Reuters.
Rastafarians have called for the legalisation of ganja for decades. Reuters.

Under the new law, possession of 2 ounces (56.7g) or less of marijuana will constitute a minor offence, with the penalty of a fine and, in addition, without leading to a criminal record. Growing up to five plants for personal use will also be permitted. Moreover, similarly to the situation in Uruguay, the bill stipulates the creation of a body in charge of issuing licences for official growing, sales and distribution channels. It should be noted that smoking marijuana in public will continue to be illegal and as such, punishable by law.

The Jamaican Government does not intend to change its stance on drug trafficking either. In fact, it plans to use part of the proceeds of the new activity to conduct a public education campaign with the aim of discouraging the consumption of marijuana among young people and thereby mitigate its negative effects on health.

Who benefits most?

Without a shadow of a doubt, those who belong to the Rastafarian movement are the great victors here. Decades passed before they were heard loudly and clearly, but it was worth the wait. It is also noteworthy that these measures were announced on the day Bob Marley would have turned 70. A significant date that now offers all the more reasons for a celebration.

The fact that Rastafarians can now use their ganja freely and legally during their rites opens a new chapter in the legalisation of cannabis. The way is being increasingly cleared and it is demonstrated that, even at a spiritual level – the most intimate sphere of a human being – marijuana has the right to occupy the place it deserves.

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