For Jamaicans, cannabis, or ganja, as it is known in the island nation, has cultural and religious meaning like no other place in the world.
Yet ganja remains only partially legal today owing to the paranoia of Jamaica’s early 20th century elite rulers (mostly white) who made the plant illegal in 1913 by enacting the Ganja Law. More recently, a 1965 Flogging Regulation Act allowed police to flog cannabis users. The brutality meted out to Jamaica’s ganja users, mostly poor and marginalized people, crystallized the anti-establishment ethos around the plant that eventually gave rise to Rastafarianism, a religion that considers the “holy herb” as sacrament and medicine.
Jamaican-born Bob Marley rose to global fame in the 1970s as the peaceful face of Rastafarianism, most aptly captured by Marley during a concert, “What we need is some positive vibration.”
Ganja – which means “hemp” in Sanskrit – is rooted in cannabis’ transplantation from India by thousands of slaves brought to Jamaica (between 1845 and 1917) after Jamaica abolished slavery in 1834.
It wasn’t until 2015 that Jamaica took the first step towards legalization by decriminalizing ganja for personal use. The new law allows people to grow up to five plants at home and transport up to fifty-six grams at a time. Exports are prohibited.
The new law made medical marijuana legal for “therapeutic” purposes. Jamaicans hope the term therapeutic is flexible enough so that tourists can legally consume recreational cannabis in the future. Today, there are anecdotal reports of tourists enjoying ganja in Jamaica without interference from the local police.
Currently, visitors to Jamaica and tourists with a medical marijuana prescription from another country can purchase permits to buy small amounts of marijuana. Cannabis medical tourism would be an interesting economic development policy to consider given the country’s vexing lack of economic growth.
The new ganja law also carves out broader legalization parameters for Rastafarians.
Anthony Hylton, Jamaica’s former Minister of Industry, Investment and Commerce, has articulated perhaps the most thoughtful direction the country should take in terms of ganja legalization. According to Hylton, “Jamaica has, however, one very valuable asset, which is the reputation of the Jamaican brand. Jamaican ganja has an image and a reputation that other producers would dearly love to have. Over time, they will develop their own brands, of course, but Jamaica is already well-positioned.”
He also wants to work around any potential collision in treaty terms between the U.S. and Jamaica by, “[participating] in, and to lead, if necessary, a process in the United Nations to have those treaties amended,” or to reflect what he believed to be evidence available to support marijuana’s strong medicinal value.
In order to protect the industry in Jamaica, Hylton asked the Jamaica Intellectual Property Office (JIPO) to increase efforts to protect Jamaican ganja as a geographical indicator through copyright or patent.
Now that cannabis is enjoying acceptance on a global scale, it seems appropriate for Jamaicans to capitalize on the “positive vibes” that they helped to create.