Marijuana Myths and Missed Opportunities
in the Caribbean
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?
Where Did Marijuana Come From?
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.
Why is Marijuana so popular in the Caribbean and in the World?
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 – the Rastafarian Herb
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.
Why So Much Madness Surrounding Marijuana?
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.
Benefits of Marijuana
According to the 2020 UN World Drug Report almost 200 million people the world over use cannabis. That’s 2.5% of the world.
Economic Potential of Marijuana
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:
- Asia ($132.9 billion)
- North America ($85.6 billion)
- Europe ($68.5 billion)
- Africa ($37.3 billion)
- South America ($9.8 billion).
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.
Medical/Health Benefits of Marijuana
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.
Marijuana and Spirituality
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.
Missed Opportunities to Benefit from Marijuana
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.
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Awesome article. It is very inspiring to anyone who reads it not only to Caribean Queens and kings. Like you say it is time to take the “bull by its horns and smell the weed”. The economy should not be struggling while its natural resources are exploited the world over.
Great read, I really enjoyed this high.
Thank you Ntlane for your remarks. we are glad that you enjoyed the read. best wishes, auliana.
I enjoyed reading your article. I remember in 1990 when my mom talked to me about her stress and anxiety and showed me how many pills she took for that and I suggested to her to take some marijuana instead of all the pills she used to take. And today we read about the benefits that this plant can do! Thank you for sharing this article, it’s really interesting to read.
With all the big talk about marijuana and the kind of money it can generate is interesting. I know I have heard of how it can be used medically to bring relief which is a positive aspect but the downside is how it is abused. So the question is with all the good that has been said about marijuana where do we go from here?
Thank you for this insightful comment Norman. We need to debunk the myths and get rid of the madness around this herb and start thinking of it as a business/a valuable resource. And as with all resources, it needs to be intelligently and sustainably utilised, avoiding all negatives.
We can start by educating people on the proper use, growth and opportunities of doing it right. Many countries have done it before, but as a Caribbean people, we are always different.
There are many opportunities for down stream industries, job creation, etc.
The marijuana value chain is vast. There are opportunities in the health and wellness industry, the medical industry, food and beverage, and even the recreational industry. There are opportunities in growing, processing, distributing, and selling. And so much could be said about value added. It’s not just about the herb but about the opportunities that we in the Caribbean could take advantage of.
Thanks so much for this great history lesson. It is good to learn the facts on a certain subject especially when there is so much misinformation out there. All the Best.
Thanks, Joseph for your comment. You are totally right. There is a lot of misinformation out there. That is why Exceptional Caribbean is working towards educating the world about the Caribbean. If you liked this post you might also like this one we did on Bob Marley’s complete list of reggae songs –
Thanks for this historical information. I am not so familiar with marijuana. I’ve only heard bad things about it, but I learned a lot after reading your article. Thank you and keep up with the good work 😉
Through my son I have learned so much about marijuana and its medicinal properties. Then long after, I started to read about the industry this illegal herb belongs to. It is unfortunate the number of young, middle and old age persons that have been jailed due to marijuana. With the right legislation and guidance this herb can be beneficial to so many. I am not sure what the next steps should be as I know persons have been lobbying for legalisation, so I guess we just have to wait and see.
Hi Sandra. That’s so true. Too many people have been sent to prison for what I’d call an absurdity. Tax payers’ money could be better spent elsewhere. Imagining ruining someone’s entire life for one spliff? Totally absurd. More needs to be done. And while many Caribbean islands have decriminalized marijuana, what about the countless young men and women who are still in prison for simply smoking a joint?
Policy report by CARICOM toward decriminalisation in the Caribbean: https://caricom.org/final-report-report-of-the-caricom-regional-commission-on-marijuana/