“…This is ‘ganja country.’ We use it at home to make ganja tea. We smoke it in public. We have been trading this drug for years…” The Gleaner Editorial, “The Ganja Culture.” Daily Gleaner, Friday July 27, 2001.
In Jamaica, the hemp flower is a much serenaded and celebrated delight.
The herb connects to a long and well-established ethno-botanical appreciation, has had primacy within the island pharmacopeia and commercial trade, and is used by many of the ordinary people, males in particular, as a meditative aid as well as a daily prophylactic. This chapter presents Jamaica as its case study to articulate an example of the politics of the legislative label of “drugs” and how that label has been used to sustain hegemonic dominance and the related reign of terror within the Anglophonic Caribbean through combat related to the so-called “War on Drugs.” Ganja, the local term used to refer to Cannabis sativa, the focus of the case, has been argued by most Jamaicans to be a naturally occurring plant and not a “drug,” the latter viewed as unnatural or synthetic chemical aggregates or processed substances such as cocaine, crack, and heroin, and deemed as part of European taste and culture.
The official state attitude in Jamaica towards the increasing use of ganja by the populace has been tantamount to a protracted victimization of the most marginal citizenry and a violation of human rights. When the war on ganja is historicized through its intellectual and political rationales, it demonstrates a hegemonic agenda that systematically demonizes the plant and its users. The economic and social foundation of humble citizens’ lives are disrupted and undermined as official law enforcement officers actively destroy the harvests and, ultimately, the families of criminalized farmers, traders and users, mostly of the poor peasant class. These are people who choose, notwithstanding the legislations, to involve themselves with the plant, as many of them see it as a gift of creation for the health of the nation. On the contrary the approach towards engaging ganja officially has been guided by European colonial fear and ignorance, which has resulted in using terrorist tactics to ensure legislative compliance from the citizenry. The concept of terrorism is often used by state authorities (and individuals with access to state support) to delegitimize political or other opponents, and potentially legitimize the state’s own use of armed force against opponents. However, in the instance of ganja, the state, by its invidious historical legislation, has criminalized and sought to eradicate an embedded heritage. More recently, the tenor of state action has been to seek to reverse the legislation on the herb; but not before securely placing its reintroduction within frameworks that ensure the government’s control of its expected high revenues. Thus, there is now within the national climate surrounding ganja liberation an emergent concern that the future industry shall preference big new foreign investors to the exclusion of those who had for years defended and sustained the assertion of the herb’s importance with their illicit crops. This has been primarily the Rastafari faithful, often described as a chiliastic movement, based on its psycho-social orientation, that developed in Jamaica in the 1930s, reverencing the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I as the biblically prophesized world redeemer, particularly of the enslaved African peoples. Within this cosmology, ganja is a sacrament used to commune in key rituals and proselytized about as the healing of the nation (see Bone 2014). For almost a century, key international spokespersons have been calling for the freeing of the herb.
Ganja entered British colonial jurisprudence as a plant, offensive if possessed, despite its millennia-long celebration and acclaim by Eastern medicine as a powerful panacea. For the western European colonial overlords, ganja was too powerful a supplement to remain in the hands of the colonized. In the Jamaican case, this resulted in a society that seemingly has its majority prepared to subvert the laws and be labeled as criminal subject to intimidation and compulsion to abstain from reliance on the herb. In some instances, the police have been known to fabricate the evidence of possession to help to build their case about the witnesses’ character. Urban black ghetto youths, particularly, are regularly terrorized by police in what has become an increasingly armed struggle with organized gangs, some of which are affiliated with political parties and their leaders. The so-called “War on Drugs” has webs connecting to politicians, drug dons, businessmen, and other professionals and transcends the margins in which peasants hide to cultivate ganja clandestinely. This was the situation of notorious drug kingpin Christopher “Dudus” Coke, nicknamed “The President,” whose extradition to the United States in May 2010 on gun and drug charges effectively toppled the seated Prime Minister of Jamaica, who was seen to be involved in buffering and obstructing the arrest and deportation. With the added complexity of the involvement of politicians and dons, the zero tolerance approach is much like blaming the victims; that is, those who seek to eke out an existence from the use and the petty trade in herb. This chapter contextualizes the evolution of the use and official response to ganja in Jamaica, recognizing that it is the dominant space and demography in the British Caribbean for the herbs production, consumption and export.
Origins and Development of Smoking Ganja in Jamaica
Jamaicans have been smoking ganja for well over 150 years (see Chevannes in Klein, Day, and Harriott 2004). By the achievement of political independence in 1962, Jamaicans were viewed as a population in which dependence on the herb through smoking of spliffs was considered chronic, a situation facilitated by the embrace of ganja as a sacrament by the Rastafari movement. The conventional opinion is that ganja, as suggested by its East Indian name, was brought to Jamaica by Asian indentured workers who began arriving in the island in the 1840s, and “introduced” the Kali ganja rituals to the existing African freed populations (Mansingh and Mansingh 2000; Comitas and Rubin 1976). Bilby (2000), however, introduces a further possibility that cannabis was known to the African population prior to the arrival of the East Indians, and it is on this basis that it so quickly became incorporated within African cultures such as Kumina and subsequently Rastafari. Whatever the origin, ganja became a common aspect of recreation and ritual practice of Africans throughout the 1800s, even though there is little evidence of it being cited as a social problem within the African population; instead, the scrutiny was on the Indian consumers, who were perceived as social degenerates because of their use of the herb. The mixing of cultures and bloodlines between Africans and Indians occurred in Jamaica at an unprecedented rate, largely due to the small numbers of the latter, relative to Trinidad and Guyana, where Indians made up at least half the population, resulted in a unique Indo-African fusion generally in Jamaica; especially in relation to connections involving the cultivation, uses, and general celebration of the herb.
The earliest legislative actions towards the herb ended its importation into the island in 1913, and, though it is likely to have been cultivated before, this was impetus for the serious cultivation of the crop in Jamaica to satisfy the local demand. The legislation set the tone for the systemic approach to ganja as the debate was advanced on the supposedly demoralizing influence on East Indian laborers and the African population. In the minority White colonial society, population control was central to European governing authorities. The capacity to maintain control was enabled by laws and institutions (such as the mental asylums and the prisons built at the end of slavery) that arbitrarily defined the folkways (drumming, herbal medicine, and ritual practices) that the Africans practiced as insanity or illegal. If the practices were perceived as providing affirmative linkages with Africa or native culture, they were thought to undermine the control of the Europeans and likely to be outlawed (Handler and Bilby 2013). This was consistent with the British practice across the world and was their attitude in India towards the population’s usage of ganja. Jamaican Legislative directions on ganja have thus been first influenced by British colonial insecurity resulting from fears about loss of control over the poor, both psychologically and economically, by the culture of ganja; its usage, cultivation, and the sale of its crop. The turn of the twentieth century saw the emergence of a spirit of independence and mobility among the African peasant classes that included a high level of migration in search of work and entrepreneurial opportunities as they sought ways of self-empowerment. In reality, there seems to have been an early export trade of the herb from Jamaica into the Central American region around the turn of the nineteenth century, sent by ship to Colon for the Black Jamaican workers who migrated there to work in building the Panama Canal (Chevannes in Klein, Day, and Harriott 2004). Emerging here was an alternative culture and economy, and a motivational ethos among the laboring classes that was outside of the access and control of the colonial overlords.
After the laws were amended to make the cultivation and importation of the herb illegal, the major community representing the production of the herb was the emergent Rastafari, who came into being as an alternative social movement after the November 1930 coronation of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I. They soon thereafter adopted the stance that the production and use of ganja was important to their worldview. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Pinnacle, the Rastafari headquarters in rural St Catherine, became the site of the commercial production of the herb for both the local and a secret export market, allegedly the British frontline during World War II (Niaah 2005).
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