In my lifetime, the island nation of Jamaica, which gained its independence from Great Britain in 1962, has been one of the world’s most cannabis-friendly nations, both for locals and for tourists. While technically marijuana, or ganja as they call it in Jamaica, was until recently illegal, in fact marijuana and marijuana smoking was largely ignored by authorities, and one could not get through the airport at either Negril or Kingston without being offered marijuana by several local entrepreneurs, competing for your business.
I know because I accepted the hospitality of these “Welcome Wagon” connections on a couple of occasions, and found the product to be excellent, and the cost was a bargain, at least compared to high-quality home-grown marijuana in the US.
And, of course, Jamaica is home to the Rastafarians, a fascinating and colorful (frequent use of red, yellow and green stripes in their hats and other clothing, the colors from the Ethiopian flag) religion that was started in Jamaica in the 1930s by descendants of African slaves, that celebrates the spiritual use of cannabis and is practiced by an estimated 1,000,000 adherents world-wide.
For many Americans, their first awareness of Jamaica may well have been cultural, when they first heard Bob Marley, a Rastafari musician, songwriter and singer who introduced reggae music and dreadlocks to the world, openly preached the benefits of marijuana smoking, and who became enormously popular in the U.S. and around the world, selling more than 75 million albums. Similarly, Peter Tosh, another reggae music star who first performed with Marley as part of the Wailers, before becoming a successful solo artist (who could ever forget his 1976 “Legalize It” anthem), popularized Rastafarianism, and advocated for marijuana legalization.
Sadly, Marley died of melanoma in 1981 at the age of 36, but his influence and reputation continue to fascinate, even today. The Marley family earlier this year announced that, in conjunction with the Privateer Holding Company from the U.S., they will be offering a new global cannabis brand to be called Marley Natural, featuring “heirloom Jamaican cannabis strains inspired by those Bob Marley enjoyed.” And President Obama, in a state visit to Jamaica in February, made an unscheduled stop at the Bob Marley museum. Obama had earlier, in an interview with MTV, discussed the influence Marley had on him during his youth.
I traveled to Jamaica on two occasions during the 1990s to work with Jamaica NORML to move proposed legalization proposals forward through their parliament. On both occasions, despite a clear majority of legislators wishing to officially legalize ganja, senior government officials became convinced the U.S. would punish Jamaica were it to legalize marijuana, by cutting important aid programs, and the legalization drive was stopped dead in its tracks. They wanted to legalize ganja, but they needed our foreign aid, and the U.S. was more than happy at that time to use the leverage of our aid programs to dismantle their ganja reform efforts.
But all of that leverage ended once states in the U.S. began to push forward with marijuana legalization, without sanctions or punitive responses from the federal government. Seeing that legalization was no longer verboten within the U.S., the Jamaicans realized they now had the freedom to determine their own domestic marijuana policy without fear of U.S. economic retribution.
Jamaica Decriminalizes Marijuana
In late February of this year, the Jamaican Parliament enacted new laws governing ganja, which took effect on July 15, removing criminal penalties for possession of up to two ounces of marijuana, substituting a $5 civil fine with no arrest or criminal record. In addition, households will be permitted to cultivate up to five marijuana plants. The legislation also authorized officials to enact regulations licensing the cultivation and dispensing of medical and industrial cannabis, as well as the right of the Rastafarians to use ganja as a religious sacrament.
While the Parliament has not yet authorized regulations to license commercial growers and recreational dispensaries, most observers expect that will come in the near future. Already they have invited U.S. marijuana tourism by announcing that those from the U.S. who hold medical recommendations will also qualify to obtain up to 2 ounces of medical ganja while they are in Jamaica. Justice Minister Mark Golding described the reforms as “long overdue.”
And to appropriately celebrate the addition of Jamaica to the growing list of countries that have decriminalized the use of marijuana, High Times recently announced they will be holding a World Cannabis Cup in Negril this year, on Nov. 12–15. Now that’s an occasion I would not want to miss.
Yeah, mon! See you in Negril.