Jamaican drug reforms hope to honour the island’s cultural cannabis tradition

Jamaicans hope the Dangerous Drugs Act will help to quiet the island’s deafening criminal element, while some remain skeptical of the plan's benefits.

“This amendment to the law is still under suspicion by the community, as to where this thing is going. The law says a lot and it says nothing.” First Man, Rastafari elder

After 100 years of strong-arm cannabis tactics, the Jamaican government moved in February last year to reform its draconian drug laws. Amendments to the country’s Dangerous Drugs Act were meant to curb growing gang violence fuelled by profits from the plant’s cultivation and sale on the island, one of the most altogether dangerous and beautiful places on earth.

Measures included reducing the possession of two ounces or less to a petty offence, no longer resulting in a criminal record, and allowing the cultivation of five or fewer plants. Practitioners of the Rastafari faith were no more to fall prey to prosecution, as the amendments permitted for the use of cannabis as a sacrament. The possibility of appointing a licensing authority to deal with the production and distribution of medical cannabis was also approved.  

Yet, with all the positive changes to Jamaican drug law, the effectiveness of the country’s cannabis reforms remains in question. A full year after the government on the Caribbean island moved to implement the new rules, Rastafari leaders are still suspicious, fearful that a past riddled with persecution will again repeat itself.

A British plantation colony formed in 1655, Jamaica’s colonial era was characterized by slavery and the production of sugarcane. The country was reported to have had one the most perfected plantation systems in the Caribbean, where nearly all of the sugar consumed in Western Europe was produced.

In 1662 there were a reported 400 black slaves on the island. As sugarcane production increased, so too did slavery. By 1673 there were nearly 10,000 men moved to horrible conditions on Jamaica’s plantations. More than a million slaves, mostly West Africans, are estimated to have been transported to Jamaica until the trade was abolished in 1838.

Of emancipation, a new demand for labour emerged. To field workforce needs, the country opened its borders and welcomed in the mid-19th Century 5,000 immigrants from China and 33,000 Indians. Linguistic evidence shows that many terms found in the Jamaican cannabis lexicon have Hindi roots. In fact, it is believed indentured servants from India were responsible for introducing ganja, as it is regionally known, to the people of the island.

Because of its tropical climate – with year-round coastal temperatures ranging between 22°C and 31°C – Jamaica marks an ideal place on the map to grow outdoor cannabis. For poor farmers who could traditionally only afford small land plots, the plant proved lucrative as a cash crop that could be grown out in a tight space.

To the country’s Rastafari, the cannabis plant has been a source of inspiration and enlightenment. Used by both orders of the faith when practitioners gather for prayer and discussion of spiritual matters, ganja has been an integral part of the Rastafarian religion since the 1940s.

While only five percent of Jamaicans are practicing Rastafari, some studies have shown as high as 60-70 percent of the population on the island consumes ganja. Celebrities like the late Bob Marley and the general popularization of reggae music have helped create a link in the popular consciousness between the use of marijuana and Jamaican culture.

On the island, cannabis has been a celebrated and strained part of the culture.

In 1913, Ganja Law was imposed by colonial decree by the Council of Evangelical Churches. The legislation, which was backed by white elites, gave special powers to police to use force – often in a brutal fashion – to combat the consumption of cannabis and the proliferation of ganja crops. In an effort to uproot the lone economic option for many poor Jamaican farmers, Ganja Law meant cultivation was met with costly fines and mandatory imprisonment.

Over the next hundred years, Ganja Law was amended time and again. In 1941 and 1961 changes made to the law, which further increased the severity of penalties for consumption and cultivation, were seen as a means of quelling political and economic unrest in lower classes and oppressing the Rastafari. After Jamaica’s independence was granted in 1962, a number of prohibitionist measures were introduced to quash any fears of an uprising by the marginalized majority on the island.

To the pervasive criminal element, this restrictive climate has proved lucrative.

In the 70s Jamaican ganja farmers took advantage of growing demand in Europe and North America by exporting their prized product. It’s one of Jamaica’s worst-kept secrets that high-ranking public officials and the island’s rich families were involved in this international export, which connected makeshift landing strips in the Jamaican outback to Florida and other popular destinations by one-engine planes packed with cannabis. To this day, ganja is one of the country’s most important export crops, bringing in about a billion dollars every year.

Because of its significance to the underworld economy in Jamaica, the stakes for ganja are high. Drugs, crime and politics have a complex relationship on the island, and the ganja trade in particular has in past led to the corruption of the country’s political and security systems. In fact, it is rumoured that wealthy white and Chinese Jamaicans with political connections are the prime movers of the illicit drug trade.

To this precarious scene, add the country’s ruthless gangs. They number over 250 spread across the countryside, where they create franchises to maintain an elaborate crime network involving guns, drugs and the corruption of every tier of Jamaican society. In their wake, the gangs leave a trail of ugly statistics.

Their impact has been dramatic. Robbery, domestic and gang violence run rampant. Jamaica has one of the highest murder rates in world, at about 40 per 100,000 people in 2012.  In 2014, gang murders contributed to a 22 percent increase in the country’s death toll. In the first 11 months of 2015, there were a recorded 1,038 murders, 493 of which were gang related. Of those murders, 54 were children and nearly 100 women.

When ganja reform was introduced to the island last year, the hope was that it would help to curb some of that unbridled violence. Removing crime from the drug trade was listed as one of the major reasons for the new regime on the island. Still, Jamaican police say, where there’s ganja, there are guns – an issue authorities hope to weed out in coming years as the long-overdue changes to the country’s new cannabis laws take root.   

For the country’s Rastafari, fear remains a theme of the religion’s ganja practices. Though there are early signs of hope with events like Herb Curb and the Jamaica High Times Cannabis Cup being issued sacramental exemptions – making them the first legal ganja events on the island – elders of the faith are still suspicious of the new laws. After 75 years of persecution for the use of what they consider a spiritual herb, it will likely take years, maybe even generations, to put those doubts to bed.

In the meantime, the rest of the country can only hope that amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act will help to quiet the island’s deafening criminal element.

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