With Jamaica’s long history and relationship with cannabis dating back more than a century, most people instantly conjure up images of sandy beaches, palm trees and Bob Marley. But how did its proliferation come about and take hold culturally?
Sowing the Seeds
After Jamaicans gained emancipation from slavery, plantation owners had to seek cheap labor elsewhere. They turned to indentured servants from East India who in turn brought with them seeds of cannabis indica. In fact, the common slang term “ganja” has its roots in a Sanskrit word meaning “hemp.” Soon after, it became popular among the working classes. Although it was outlawed by the same types of plantation owners who saw it as a threat to the rum market, it has established a positive meaning, often associated with love and brotherhood. Today, it is estimated that two out of every three Jamaicans use cannabis on a regular basis.
Culture of Celebration
Given this history, one would be remiss if Rastafarian culture did not also come to mind when talking about cannabis and the Caribbean. Rastafari marks a black religious consciousness that began in the 1920s. Many people believe that a prophesy proclaimed by Marcus Garvey in 1920, (“Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand”) came true in 1930, when Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia and became known as Emperor Hailie Selassie. Ethiopians as well as Rastafarians celebrate the plant and its properties as part of the Tree of Life, and consider it to be the vehicle to cosmic consciousness.
For Rastas, it is seen as an aid to meditation, and as such, they gather in what are called “reasoning” ceremonies where they openly discuss moral quandaries. It is also central to livelier “groundation” ceremonies which involve of singing, dancing and feasting.
Bob Marley famously and insightfully once said, “When you smoke the herb, it reveals you to yourself.” This makes a lot of sense to anyone who, like him, viewed the herb as an actual “sacrament.”