Ganga, Rastafarians and the High Times Jamaica Cannabis Cup

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The flight out of Washington, D.C., to Charlotte, N.C., to catch my connecting flight to Jamaica, looked like most flights when I am leaving D.C.: A lot of suits and ties and business people on board heading to or returning from a business meeting or a meeting with their members of Congress, or their office in the nation’s capital.

But the flight from Charlotte to Jamaica left no doubt that this was no longer a business trip for most on the plane. They were dressed casually, and some were obviously dressed for the beach. Something about Jamaica that suggests relaxing on the beach with a nice rum drink and some good ganga — the term generally used for marijuana in Jamaica.

I realized I might well be one of the only people on my flight who were actually going to Jamaica on a business trip – albeit heading to the first High Times Jamaica Cannabis Cup in Negril. I know; it’s tough work, but someone has to do it!

Jamaica – Yeah, Mon!

The flights from DC to Montego Bay, the closest airport to Negril, take about five hours, and once one is on the island and through customs, it is then another 90-minute drive to Negril. That travel time allows one to slow down a bit, to begin the necessary emotional process of getting in sync with the Jamaican pace of life, and to begin to enjoy the island culture.

In Jamaica, one really has no choice but to leave the hard-charging lifestyle aside. The Caribbean island nation operates on its own take-life-easy pace – it is called “Jamaica time” — which is one of the appealing aspects for those coming to Jamaica on vacation, along with the endless sandy beaches and beautiful blue Caribbean water.

The first thing one notices is that Jamaicans drive on the “wrong” side of the road, an unsettling practice for us Americans, a reminder that Jamaica was a long-time British colony, before finally gaining their independence in 1962. That also explains their decidedly British accent, which sometimes is difficult for Americans to understand.

The Jamaican High Times Cannabis Cup

High Times, as many readers will know, has been holding an annual Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam for 28 years, on Thanksgiving weekend. And with the advance of legalization in the U.S., they now hold a number of domestic Cannabis Cup events each year. But this event in Negril is their only other event held outside the U.S. And because of the long relationship between ganga and Jamaica, the decision to schedule a Cup in Jamaica seemed only appropriate.

In late February of this year, the Jamaican Parliament enacted new laws governing ganja, which took effect on July 15, removing criminal penalties for possession of up to two ounces of marijuana, substituting a $5 civil fine with no arrest or criminal record. In addition, households are now permitted to cultivate up to five marijuana plants. The legislation also authorized officials to enact regulations licensing the cultivation and dispensing of medical and industrial cannabis, as well as recognizing the right of the Rastafarians to use ganja as a religious sacrament.

Already they have invited U.S. marijuana tourism by announcing that those from the U.S. who hold medical recommendations will also qualify to obtain up to 2 ounces of medical ganja while they are in Jamaica. Justice Minister Mark Golding described the reforms as “long overdue.”

But still planning the Jamaican Cup was not easy. Before the required government permits could be obtained, High Times was advised it would be necessary to win the approval and cooperation of the Rastafarians. Under the new Jamaican marijuana law, only the Rastafarians are legally permitted to hold public demonstrations using ganga, and that is because it is now their legally recognized religious sacrament.

The Rastafari

The ancestors of present day Rastafarians arrived in Jamaica as African slaves destined to work in the Jamaican sugar cane fields during the early 1800s. Thought slavery was abolished in Jamaica in 1834, by edict of the British Parliament (some three decades before it was ended by the Civil War in the U.S.), Rastafarians remained the underclass of Jamaica society.

As with other communities, there are several factions and different leaders who speak for and represent the four different tribes of Rastas in Jamaica. The task of building a coalition with the Rastas fell to the Associate Publisher Rick Cusick and Board Chair Michael Kennedy from High Times, and to Harvard Law Professor Ron Nesson, a man with a long relationship with Jamaica and the Rastafarians. And Jamaican Justice Minister Mark Golding was an active participant in that process, which might not have been possible otherwise.

The negotiations leading-up to the permit for the event were challenging for all the parties, with several deadlines missed and new deadlines set, but somehow in the end common sense prevailed and the event was approved by all the stakeholders.

The government saw this event as an appropriate way (at last) to show respect to the Rastafarians, a culture with a long history of discrimination, and the Rastafarians astutely saw this as an opportunity to showcase their religion, and their culture, in a more favorable light.

So this latest event – the High Times 2015 Jamaica Cannabis Cup – a four-day Cup, held at a public park on the beach in Negril, with lots of exhibitors and Jamaican live music and the annual awards ceremony judging the finest ganga in Jamaica on the final evening — was officially sponsored by the Rastafari Rootzfest. And the Rastafarian culture and religion were common themes throughout the four days, with drum circles and Rastafarian chants prominently featured in the opening ceremonies, and Rasta speakers featured daily at the seminar tent. And the Rastas maintained a food-court next door to the Cup, with traditional Rastafarian offerings.

Rastas Finally Getting Respect

The most significant thing I gleaned from this brief Jamaican visit was a far greater appreciation of the Rastarian culture and the importance they attach to the legalization of marijuana in Jamaica. It was clear that these Rastafarian leaders perceive the recent changes legalizing ganga in Jamaica as a significant step towards recognizing the legitimacy of their entire culture – not just their use of ganga – and to them this moment has the feeling of freedom and dignity, after a long period of disrespect and discrimination.

For most Americans, I suspect Rastas are seen as colorful people, with their bright orange, yellow and green clothing, and their distinctive dreadlocks, but aspects of the Rastafarian religion may seem strange; e.g., the worship of the late Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie as their savior. I am not here to try to convince anyone that they should worship Haile Selassie, or that they should become a practicing Rastafarian.

But I recognize now that those who truly hold this religion in their hearts and their lives deserve the same respect we show other religions; such as those who believe the Pope is infallible and is a direct descendant of St. Peter; or those who believe one must be baptized in the blood of Christ to have ever-lasting life. All religions require a giant leap of faith, but most of them also appear to play an important cohesive role in the disparate cultures. And the specific beliefs of the Rastafarians do not seem to me more difficult to abide, than do the beliefs of many of the more prominent religions.

As they see the full legalization of ganga looming in the near future in Jamaica, the Rastas want to assure that their culture will at last benefit financially from the legalization of their sacred herb, and that they will not be shoved aside and exploited by outside interests.

Legalizing marijuana in Jamaica is a change that has brought a measure of freedom, and promise of a brighter future, economically and culturally, to the Rastafarians. That is a milestone we can all celebrate.

The fight to legalize marijuana was never limited to the U.S., and while we continue to lead the way, legalization is alive and well and moving forward in many other countries, including Jamaica. It’s a lovely thing to see.

Yeah, mon!

 

About Author

Keith Stroup is a Washington, DC public-interest attorney who founded NORML in 1970. Stroup first smoked marijuana when he was a first-year law student in 1965 and has been a regular smoker and a cannabis activist ever since. In 1992 Stroup was the recipient of the Richard J. Dennis Drugpeace Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Drug Policy Reform presented by the Drug Policy Foundation; in 2010 he received the Al Horn Award from the NORML Legal Committee for a lifetime of work advancing the cause of justice; and in 2012, Stroup received the High Times Lifetime Achievement Award. Keith currently serves as NORML's Legal Counsel and on NORML's Board of Directors. He resides in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife.