Jamaican MountainsNearly 40 years after Peter Tosh released the ganja anthem Legalize it, his homeland took a giant step towards the dream with a government judgement at the beginning of June. “Doctors smoke it, Nurses smoke it, Judges smoke it,” sang Tosh on the 1976 classic. After a recent announcement by the Minister of Justice maybe even government ministers smoke it too…

Peter ToshJamaica and ganja go together like peas and carrots, but until now the island has made many of its citizens criminals for possessing even small amounts of weed. However, that is about to change with a law change this summer.

Time Magazine quoted Mr Mark Golding, Justice Minister for Jamaica, as saying that the cabinet had approved law changes affecting “possession of small quantities of ganja for personal use.” He added that the law would also cover use in private places and the use of “ganja for medical-medicinal purposes.” This will mean small fines, or community service, for users caught with less than two ounces (56 grams).

Media sources indicated that the Jamaican Government decision was part of a regional trend. Voice of Russia reported that, with the legal status of marijuana changing in 22 US states (from decriminalization to allowing medical use) and Uruguay legalizing, Jamaica is responding to a more relaxed environment in the region. In the past it had resisted calls for change, afraid of receiving US sanctions for breaking international drugs treaties.

Ganja in Jamaica

There are almost 3 million people living in Jamaica, which is one of the largest islands in the Caribbean. It has a mixed economy which includes tourism (1 million people a year visit the island), mining (Jamaica is the fifth biggest exporter of bauxite in the world), agriculture (the country produces sugar, bananas, coffee) and rum.

SaddhuThere is general agreement that marijuana first came to Jamaica in the Nineteenth century. After slavery was ‘officially’ abolished, Indian workers were brought to the island to work on the plantations. They brought with them seeds from the Kush region, which thrived in the climate of the Caribbean. The word ganja comes from the Indian name for the Ganges River (the word गंगा in Hindi, or gaṅgā).

Some scholars see a parallel between the holy saddhus of India, and the rastas, or Rastafarians, of Jamaica. They share a sense of spirituality, devotion to the ganja and similarity in appearance which has been linked to the Indian influence.

The rest of the world knew very little about this Jamaican culture until Bob Marley took the reggae sound and turned it into an international music sensation in the 1970s. In the years that followed, reggae painted the world red, gold and green and brought the culture of burning spliff into the mainstream with songs about Sensimilla (also known as sensi or sens) and collieweed.

While the climate of Jamaica is perfect for growing marijuana, which grows all over the 235km long island, it has been grown in secret. While there are bigger farms, linked with criminal supply, there are many more smaller garden operations, run by locals struggling to make a living.

Some see the de-criminalization process as a potential opportunity for profit (‘ganja tourism’ has existed on the island for many years) but an article on the ABC News website has also suggested that Jamaica is interested in researching medical and scientific uses. It reported that Justice Minister, Mr Golding, said, “It is not only wrong but also foolhardy to continue with a law that makes it illegal to possess ganja and its derivatives for medicinal purposes."

Marijuana has been used as a medicine since it first arrived on the island and inhabitants of all ages, not just Rastas, have traditionally used the herb in lotions and tinctures as a cure for bad health. With the new law change, perhaps the real opportunity is to take that medical tradition and export the benefits of the herb to the wider world.