Jamaica has long been associated with cannabis in the western imagination, particularly here in the United States where our perception of the island’s culture has been heavily influenced by the musical legacy of reggae legend (and vocal cannabis advocate) Bob Marley. His musical career began around the same time Jamaica gained independence in the early ’60s, a time when cannabis was already making inroads into the American mainstream through the burgeoning counter culture, and when the Wailers got their big break in the early ’70s, he became a central icon of that cannabis-loving subculture.
But despite the American perception of Jamaica being a place where cannabis is enjoyed freely, the island nation has only recently begun to seriously implement legal reforms decriminalizing cannabis and creating a licensing framework for legal medical cannabis and hemp industries.
So while it may seem like a ho-hum announcement in the states, where especially in an adult use states like California the opening of a new dispensary hardly qualifies as newsworthy, the recent ribbon cutting at Kaya Farms — Jamaica’s first legal medical cannabis dispensary — is an absolutely historic event.
Balram Vaswani, the chairman and “chief ganja officer” of Kaya Farms, told the Cannabis Business Times, “It has been an arduous journey for all involved in making this dream a reality. We cannot forget the Indians who brought the plant, the Rastafarians that fought to advocate it, University of Technology, Government officials on both sides and corporate Jamaica that have all helped to steer this through the political landscape.”
Vaswani said that he is confident that Jamaican farmers “can compete internationally as ganja becomes a commodity.”
That “arduous journey” reaches back into Jamaica’s dark colonial past, long before the island nation gained independence in 1962. The original inhabitants of Jamaica were the Taíno people. When the Spanish colonized Jamaica in 1509, they enslaved the Taíno, who suffered so badly from the toils of slavery and the foreign diseased brought by the Spanish that they were nearly eradicated.
The current character and culture of the island, though certainly rooted in the Taíno culture in some respects, is largely a product of British occupation, which began when Britain defeated Spanish forces and claimed the island as a colony around 1655. In keeping with colonial tradition, they used slaves imported from West Africa to work sugar cane plantations. Even when Britain officially abolished slavery in 1810 it took a violent slave uprising involving the wholesale destruction of several plantations to finally convince the British rulers of Jamaica declared slavery illegal in 1838.
All of that led to the importation of indentured servants from East India, who first brought cannabis to the island, calling it by its Hindi name “ganja,” which is still the most common name used for cannabis in Jamaica. As in the United States, cannabis quickly grew popular with low income communities because it provided an inexpensive means of relaxation. And, as in the U.S., it inspired a reactionary disinformation campaign that lead to prohibitions and selective, often violent enforcement of those prohibitions.
The original cannabis prohibition law was the brainchild of a group called the Council of Evangelical Churches in Jamaica, and was largely intended as a repression of Rastafarianism, which had become a central religious current on the island and which encouraged the ritual use of ganja.
From the Jamaica Observer:
The emergence of the campaign and preparation of this oppressive instrument, the 1913 Law and its Amendment in the 1920’s, was led by the Church and white elites… The planter-controlled society meted out severe punishment to black labourers in the form of extremely high fines for penalties from court cases in the post-emancipation period. The fine for ganja, “a victimless crime”, was exorbitant for people who had little or no money.
The first amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act decriminalizing ganja didn’t happen until just a few years ago in 2015, and it’s undeniable that the pace of licensing for legal cannabis businesses is slow in Jamaica. But while tourists visiting “Jamrock” — who have always enjoyed relative lenience when it came to enforcement of cannabis prohibition — may not notice these glacial shifts in policy, for regular Jamaicans it’s another slow but steady step towards just laws and safe access.
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