Marijuana, weed, ganja, cannabis, pot, hashish, joint, blunt, spliff, industrial hemp, call it by whatever name you want, no other plant has had more controversy around it than this versatile herb.
For decades, marijuana has attracted a negative stigma, not just in the Caribbean, but all over the world as well. Lawmakers have come down on marijuana producers and users with the same might and force as they have with deadly narcotics like cocaine and heroin.
There are thousands of young men (and women) who have been locked up behind bars, persecuted and prosecuted because of this green, God-given herb. But is marijuana really that bad? And how do we debunk the myths and madness surrounding this herb and shed light on the missed opportunities in the Caribbean?
Many people associate marijuana with Jamaica or Rastafarianism. But the marijuana plant originally evolved in Central Asia before people introduced the plant into Africa, Europe and eventually the Americas. The fibre of the cannabis plant, also known as hemp fibre, was mostly used to make rugs, rope, clothing, paper, and sails, and its seeds were used as food.
After being introduced to the Caribbean, marijuana has become a staple of the Caribbean lifestyle. Ganja has been used as a sacred herb in the Rastafarian movement and has been used by reggae artistes such as Bob Marley, to evoke lyrical inspiration. Not to mention, the Caribbean’s climate provides ideal conditions for growth.
The term ‘ganja’ has its origins from the Indian Sanskrit language. So how did a Sanskrit word (ganja) become so commonly used in the Caribbean? When the British abolished slavery in 1833, Indian indentured labourers were brought over to work in many Caribbean territories such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana. The intermingling of Indians with these populations meant that cultural exchanges would take place and so, the word ‘ganja’ became the lingo among black Caribbean communities across the region, particularly in Jamaica and Trinidad.
What comes to mind when you listen to or think about reggae music? For many fans, reggae music is inextricably linked to Jamaica, Rastas and of course, marijuana. They think of island Rastas puffing a spliff and chanting melodious reggae tunes. And the King of Reggae himself, Bob Marley had a pro-marijuana stance often reflected in the conscious lyrics of his music. So, one can surmise that one of the factors influencing the popularity of marijuana can be positively linked to the popularity of reggae music.
Marijuana is as sacred to Rastas as holy communion is to Catholics. They do not see it as a drug. In fact, most Rastas are against drug use such as cocaine or heroin. Their religion forbids them from consuming substances that defile their bodies or restrict spiritual development.
Ganja is seen as a herb created by Jah. It is a tool used to open up the mind to receive knowledge and understanding on spiritual matters, to gain self-realisation and experience the mystical. Ganja is often smoked as a communal activity among Rastas to enhance discussions on spiritual matters called ‘reasonings’. Rastas typically call it the wisdom weed or holy herb.
In Jamaica, ganja gained its popularity and notoriety, particularly among the young, black farm workers. Ganja became a black thing. Add marijuana to the black power movement and Rastafarianism and you create a potent combination. The elite became unsettled and threatened and soon any associations with black liberation were frowned upon, including ganja.
So it was not a surprise that in 1913 in Jamaica, ganja became illegal and the rest of the Caribbean followed suit. Ganja was restricted in 1915 in Trinidad and eventually made outright illegal in 1925. The crackdown on marijuana was further worsened with the persecution of Rastas in the mid-1950s and 60s. The government of Jamaica went as far as to issue an order to police and military to “bring all Rastas, dead or alive”. The war on Rastas became the war on ganja as well.
The war on marijuana continued for many decades. According to the UN World Drug Report, 2020, Cannabis remains the #1 drug linked to incarceration, accounting for more than half of drug law offences, based on data from 69 countries covering the period between 2014 and 2018.
According to the 2020 UN World Drug Report almost 200 million people the world over use cannabis. That’s 2.5% of the world.
The marijuana industry is a huge global business. The global marijuana market (regulated and illicit) was valued at US $344 billion in 2019, according to New Frontier Data . The top five regional markets by revenue generated are:
Note that the Caribbean is nowhere on that list.
However, Jamaica has seen the opportunities and are beginning to take the bull by its horns. In 2015, Jamaica launched the Nutraceutical Industry paving the way for a plethora of economic opportunities for the country.
Cannabis use has many health benefits including pain relief, relaxation, cancer treatment, lung improvement, to treat glaucoma, and many others. Marijuana is a wonder herb and there is no reason why it cannot be used as a mainstream supplement or drug.
The Sadhus, Shamans and Rastafarians use ganja as part of their religious practices. Some use marijuana in conjunction with meditation. Rastas usually smoke a joint before reading the bible or philosophical contemplation. It also promotes relaxation and aids in general mental well-being.
How can the Caribbean benefit from this US $344 billion industry? The region has the opportunity to use its icons and brand muscle to pivot and lead in this industry in a real way – reggae, Bob Marley, the Caribbean name. Marijuana can become a main attraction for the tourism industry akin to what’s being done in Amsterdam with their cannabis cafes. It can be transformed into unique Caribbean spa and wellness treatments – Herb and Healing Therapy, Marijuana Massage, Ganja Scrub, Cannabis Essential Oils, you name it.
What about ganja wine, ganja-infused rums, teas, jams, candies, cakes and so much more. The limit is the imagination.
But as always, we are taking our cues from Europe and America, when we can be leading. Imagine there is a marijuana museum in Germany and NONE in the Caribbean? Canada is collecting millions from cannabis distribution license fees. How much are Caribbean governments collecting? Nothing!
And what about research? As with many of our Caribbean herbs, we do not know the value of what we have. We wait for American researchers to tell us of the benefits of cranberries, corn and artichoke but we haven’t got a clue about our own naturally grown herbs, fruits and plants right in our back yards.
It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee, I mean, ganja. And learn to love who we are and value what we have to offer the world. But if we don’t know who we are, how can we value our Caribbean-ness? And if we don’t value ourselves, how can we love ourselves?
It’s time we stop playing catch up and, as Prime Minister Mia Mottley said, learn to pivot and create ‘moonshots’ based on our uniqueness. And what is more unique to the Caribbean lifestyle than smoking a spliff?
 New Frontier Data, Global Cannabis Report: 2019 Industry Outlook.
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Kevon Wilson, is a premier researcher and strategist. He has more than 16 years’ experience in research, digital marketing, and strategic planning in over 15 countries around the world.
He is co-author of many of Leve Global’s research publications such as “Big Data – Delivering the Big Picture to Drive Competitiveness”, “Everything You Need to Know About Internet Marketing”, “The Top Ten Emerging Markets” as well as market publications on the American, British, German, Japanese and Canadian markets.