Jamaican ganja tour
The road to the jungle rose up from the azure Caribbean, through shanty towns and bustling way stations, past vast sugarcane fields green with life or black from post-harvest burning.
Our ganja garden guides sat in our rental car smoking torpedo-shaped Jamaican spliffs as the road twisted and turned, their mahogany-toned fingers stained by cannabis resins.
We had driven to a tropical forest zone that was silent save for bird calls and wind. Jamaican police would be the only other people on the backcountry roads we drove that day; on the lookout for parked cars or motorbikes, they'd check license plates, sniff parked vehicles, scrutinize the forest next to the road, and look for trails that led to ganja plantations.
Using intuition, guided by experience and training, police begin interdiction operations by towing parked vehicles. Then they'd call in reinforcements, cordon off the road, put guards at the road end of trails, and start hiking, looking for the pot at the end of the rainbow.
If you get arrested for growing ganja in Jamaica, if you don't have personal friends on the police force or in the judiciary, if you don't have enough money to bribe your way out, you go to jail for a long time.
We were in a rental car because Doktah and Soldier, like most Jamaican ganja growers, don't have easy access to reliable fossil fuel transportation. Doktah's money, what little he earns from growing ganja on a five-acre plot carved out of a rock-strewn mountainside, goes to feed his wife and children.
The car he had driven us in for part of the journey was unreliable, its guts falling out. Every time we went over a bump or pothole, which was every few seconds, a wrenching sound made us fear an axle would break or a wheel would fall off.
Jamaica is an impoverished third world country. Most people don't have cars. They walk or ride bikes. Growing and selling ganja to tourists, and exporting ganja, are among the only ways islanders make money.
On the second day I visited Jamaica, Doktah sold me two pounds of freshly-dried, organic outdoor ganja for $150 US per pound, slightly higher than the average price, but it felt right to be generous, and Doktah's weed was the best you'll ever see in Jamaica ? well-cured, sticky, resinous, wickedly potent.
In the US, Doktah's pound would have cost $3500.
The car carried us over hills and through a valley, then up to the mountains. Green leaves filtered tropical sun bounded by turquoise skies with cottony clouds billowing up on the horizon.
We parked and unloaded our gear. Soldier got back in the car and drove it away; his mission was to stash the car under cover several miles away, then run back to where the garden trail started, and follow behind us for the two-mile hike into the verdant forest.
Three of us started the journey while Soldier drove away. Accompanying Doktah and I was Bubbleman, the Canadian entrepreneur whose "bubblebags" help people make hashish.
Our path immediately headed uphill. Vines, lime trees, and humid mountain air made for hard going. We reached a limestone cliff. Embedded in its sharp bone-white rocks were fossils and other remnants of an ancient seabed.
We scrambled, panting up the vertical cliffs, cutting our hands and knees, trying to keep up with Doktah. He sprinted up the cliffs carrying a machete! He was always looking back smiling at us from far above, his unbelievably long dreadlocks wrapped around his head.
Gardens of Eden
We came out of a thick tangle of trees and vines to a hillside that had been chopped, cleared, and domesticated.
Doktah pointed to some vines, proudly proclaiming them to be his "yams."
Above the yams, on a slope so steep I had to struggle to keep from sliding down it, were small marijuana plants growing in ground that was more rock than soil. Doktah explained that he and Soldier had spent several years converting the mountainside to a ganja plantation. They had carried tons of rich soil, manure, cisterns, water, and other supplies up the cliffs ? on their backs.
They cleared rocks, and where rocks used to be, they hollowed the earth and made soil beds bounded by rocks arranged in miniature walls to keep soil and water from running downhill.
In the new soil, they put cannabis seeds. Almost all the seeds were from plants grown within a five-mile radius of the garden. Doktah struggled to name the varieties he was growing. "Skunk, Durban Poison?" But he had no idea what strains they really were, and there was no objective way to determine if he was growing anything that could be directly related to "authentic" Jamaican Sativa genetics from the 1960's and 70's, varieties generally referred to as "Lambsbread," or "Collieweed."
Doktah's plants were no more than four feet tall; most were much shorter. Their leaves were typical of hybridized Sativa-Indica blends ? not pencil thin like Sativa leaves, not huge and thick like Indica leaves, but in between.
I counted three distinct varieties in the garden, including pink-haired beauties that were only two feet high but were solid flower from the ground up.
Soon after we arrived, Soldier came loping up the trail. We were stunned at how quickly he had made up the time and distance. He showed me the breeding area, where plants were transplanted, experimented with, pollinated, and monitored. He told me the plants were selected for resin production, resistance to drought, and potency.
Of all the problems ganja growers face in Jamaica, Soldier said, the most prevalent was water shortages. Global warming, urbanization and deforestation have decreased rainfall in Jamaica, making life harder for rural growers.
Soldier breeds male and females away from the main crop, with newspaper around them to prevent pollen contamination and drift. The resultant seeds are moderately-sized, striped, glossy with hemp resins; Soldier said the seeds had a 100% sprout rate.
While we examined the mountainside seed program, Doktah roasted organic homegrown peanuts inside a sheet metal hut crammed full of drying ganja. Bubbleman baked the Jamaican's minds with red bubblehash made from Doktah's bud. When he pressed the hash flat and held it up to the sun, it was clear, like amber.
We ate the delicious peanuts and drank rainwater and played with Doktah's two "watchcats." These were tiny, feisty felines tied with rope to piles of wood. They mew constantly, chase birds, mice and rats, and make intruders think somebody lives in the garden, Doktah explained.
After our bellies were full and our minds were altered, we climbed 100 feet through a thicket of foliage to another garden, this one festooned by 200 mature, budding plants.
Clean and healthy
One of the first things I noticed about Doktah's plants was that they were supremely healthy. He said he used only organic fertilizers, such as chicken manure, and absolutely no chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.
I compared his plants to plants I'd seen inside grow rooms, plants afflicted with powdery mildew, mites, whitefly, gnats, thrips, molds, and growth deficiencies. I found it ironic that a Jamaican guy with seven-foot dreadlocks, without equipment or electricity, without anything artificial, on a remote mountainside, was growing plants that were absolutely disease-free and pest-free.
Doktah and the rest of us searched the nearly-ripe buds of dozens of plants, looking for pests and diseases. He found one emerald green budworm, removed it from the bud, and held it in his palm. The worm was still clinging to the ganja it was eating. Doktah said budworms are a good sign.
"If the garden be sprayed with poison, there be no worms in it, and it not fit to smoke," he explained. "When you see a fat worm in the herb, it means it's safe for us to smoke that herb."
Doktah and Soldier talked of their nine years of growing ganja. Police had busted many gardens in valleys below them, and on adjacent hillsides, but had never gotten to theirs. "Our trail is too hard to follow," Soldier said. "Them don't want to climb so hard."
Thieves had troubled them a bit, but Doktah's attitude was generous and forgiving. He felt that Jah, the God of the herb, had made the plant for everybody. How can a man steal what the earth freely gives, he asked.
"Ganja be the gift of the Creator, Jah Rastafari," Doktah said, beaming, when I told him how much I admired his crop. "We only put the seed in the ground and help the plant stay safe. The earth provides the food and the sky provides the rain. It is all a blessing."
Jamaica has a long, proud ganja tradition. The plant grows ubiquitously across the island, and is considered a sacrament by the Rastafarian religion, which originated in Jamaica.
Jamaicans consume ganja in teas, tinctures, food, lotions, and smoke. By far, the most prevalent consumption method is smoking a spliff of dried marijuana. The abundance and potency of island herb has meant that few islanders felt the need to deliberately distill it into concentrated smoking products such as hashish.
Three years ago, Bubbleman visited Jamaica and began showing people how to make and smoke what he calls "full melt" bubblehash. Full melt is the purest bubblehash, washed clean by icewater, filtered through the ideal bubblebag pore size. It contains mature resin glands minus the stalks, and little else. There's hardly anything to burn; when flame is applied to pure bubble, it melts.
In Jamaica and other countries where cannabis is processed by hand, "finger hash" and "scissors hash" accumulate and are rolled into balls and smoked. The hash does not bubble, it burns, because it is contaminated with combustible plant material.
When Bubbleman first showed bubblehash and bubblebags to Jamaicans, they had never seen anything like it. During my visit, I witnessed Jamaicans who were suspicious of bubblehash because it has to be smoked in a pipe.
Bubblehash is often called "hippie crack" because it is smoked in a pipe like crack cocaine, because it sizzles like crack cocaine, and because it creates a demolition high that knocks people unconscious.
It also seems to sometimes produce dependency and withdrawal syndromes. I've met several bubbleheads who smoke bubble every few minutes, not because they "want" to, but because they feel shaky, cranky and depressed if their blood plasma levels of bubble-infused THC drop below a certain percentage.
Bubblehash is what Dutch authorities have in mind when they worry that some marijuana products resemble "hard drugs." Novice users beware: bubblehash is to regular marijuana what 161 proof grain alcohol is to beer!
A few Jamaicans thought bubblehash actually was crack. On the other hand, Doktah, Soldier and other islanders eagerly embraced the bubblehash concept, eagerly learning to make it, dry it, and smoke it like pros.
Still, it isn't easy to introduce a new type of ganja product to a culture that has many decades of experience with smoking spliffs of dried leaves and flowers.
One afternoon, Bubbleman and I were in the jungle near a workers' shed packed with ganja hanging from the ceiling to dry.
We were at a 20 acre grow site that was vastly larger and more sophisticated than Doktah's garden.
The vibe was different too; these growers and their employees were clearly a manufacturing consortium interested in high profits and the export market.
To get to the site, we had gone through the same car camouflage ruse, then embarked for an hour-long hike that took us through towering bamboo forests.
The plantation was extremely impressive, with orderly rows of plants in all stages of growth. Most of the plants were spiky Indicas flush with buds that began flowering within two weeks of sprouting due to Jamaica's short day length.
Particularly rare succulence was found on "Sativa Hill," where approximately 300 thin-leafed Sativas grew tall and proud next to a nursery containing hundreds of seedlings in peat pots. Jamaicans aren't into cloning. They believe that the strongest, most natural weed comes from "Jah's way," which is to grow plants from seeds.
I took pictures until my fingers ached, until heat, dehydration and sunburn forced me back to the shade of the trimmers' hut. I watched with fascination as the half dozen trimmers in the shed used small knives to whittle the buds.
I've seen a lot of bud manicurists in my 10 years as a pot journalist, but Jamaican manicurists are the most careful and committed ? they're artisans. They cut and trim with a razor sharp knife's edge, removing even the smallest of damaged leaves, making buds look like pieces of sculpture. Drying in tropical sun, first spread out on the ground toasting in the heat, then hanging in the cool of the shed, the cannabinoids in the buds convert from inactive form to psychoactive, making them all the more potent when flame is applied and smoke is inhaled.
Jamaican buds dry to a golden sheen in two or three days. I compared the smell, taste, freshness, drying time, and combustibility of the Jamaican buds with buds produced in commercial grow rooms.
The Jamaican buds were superior.
How superior? Well, Bubbleman is a self-described cannabis snob. I have never seen him smoke whole marijuana. He only smokes resins. But one balmy night, when we were sitting at a roadside terrace next to the sea, Doktah proudly offered Bubbleman a freshly-lit spliff of Doktah's finest. It would have been rude for Bubbleman to turn it down. He took a hit, coughed for more than a minute, then looked at me with a smile on his face.
"This ganja is as strong as some bubblehash I've smoked," he rasped, exhaling smoke. "It's wicked!"
Jamaica's drug war
Many people think marijuana is legal in Jamaica. It isn't. Tourists and citizens are routinely arrested for possessing even the smallest amount of marijuana, but getting arrested is the result of being stupid and careless, not just being there; an intelligent, discreet visitor can have a more marvelous marijuana vacation in Jamaica than anywhere else on earth.
Government officials, panels and commissions have repeatedly recommended that Jamaica decriminalize marijuana, and make possession of small amounts totally legal.
The recommendations have not been followed, mostly because the US government pressures Jamaica into running a US-backed drug war. From 1970 to 1998, US military equipment, soldiers, DEA agents and spies dominated Jamaica, with US and Jamaican soldiers teaming up to stage helicopter raids, marine interdiction, and full-scale military assaults on ganja plantations.
Beginning in 1998, more and more Jamaicans began to actively reject US interference in the country's sovereign affairs. The US slightly reduced the millions of dollars it was spending to wage the Jamaican drug war, and stopped sending its soldiers to Jamaica. Instead, the US gave a lot of equipment and money to Jamaican drug warriors, and sent more DEA agents to the country. The US Embassy in Jamaica is the headquarters of the drug war. The Embassy is run by a long-time drug warrior, Ambassador Sue Cobb, who treats Jamaicans like children.
Cobb is buying drug war equipment for Jamaican police, and is also setting up school operations that mimic the US-based DARE program, which seeks to hypnotize children so they'll be pro-US and sympathetic to the war on drugs.
She was also instrumental in promoting "Youth Crime Watch of Jamaica," a church-influenced offshoot of programs Cobb supervised in Florida. The Jamaican program will be administered through "police youth clubs" that teach children how to be informants and unpaid police officers.
Much to Cobb's dismay, the Jamaican government convened a "National Commission on Ganja." The Commission's report came out a few months ago; it recommended that Rastafarians and non-Rasta adults be allowed to legally possess small amounts of marijuana, and that minor marijuana crimes should not be permanently recorded on a defendant's police record.
The report was filtered through a Parliamentary committee and the Jamaican justice minister. The latest word is that the Jamaican government intends to lobby for changes to international narcotics treaties that would allow the country to move forward with limited decriminalization.
In the meantime, ganja laws and other politically-motivated police actions are increasingly being used against reggae performers whose pro-marijuana populist messages are viewed as too radical by Jamaica's ruling elites.
Late last year, police raided the Kingston recording studio of popular singer Buju Banton. They found two live marijuana plants. Banton was found guilty of ganja possession and cultivation, and sentenced to serve 60 days in jail or pay a $9,000 fine.
Another pioneering Jamaican recording artist, Jah Cure, was taken down in a questionable rape case that most Jamaicans feel was a political hit. He's been in prison since 1999.
Other top performers, as well as marijuana activists, Rastafarians, and radical politicians, have felt the bite of the country's ganja laws.
Jamaican police forces are using jet skis to stop ganja dealers who use jet skis and boats to sell herb to tourists, while passengers arriving in Europe and North America on air flights from Jamaica are subject to humiliating searches that include being put in cells and forced to defecate so police officers can examine their bowel movements to see if they contain illegal drugs.
The drug war is alive and well in the Caribbean.
Safe ganja tourism
It's safer now to go to Jamaica for a ganja vacation than it was several years ago, when economic woes, US drug war atrocities, and an influx of cheap cocaine seriously destabilized the island and made it less fun for tourists.
The country has pulled itself back from the brink since then, so I can again recommend Jamaica as a safe tourist destination.
If you're going to Jamaica primarily to smoke herb, Negril is the place to be. Located 90 scenic minutes from Montego Bay Airport, Negril has two sections ? a long, sandy beach bordered on the north by a bay, and "the cliffs."
The sandy beach is a nice place to visit, but the beach and Negril bayside are primarily home to alcohol-oriented resorts, all-inclusive resorts, and sex resorts. These places are not ganja-friendly. They generally worship alcohol, and are paranoid about marijuana and cocaine.
Instead, book into hotels along the cliffs, such as Sam Sara, Xtabi, and Coral Seas Cliffs. Establishments like these are modern and safe, and are not averse to discreet ganja use in rooms and in secluded public areas.
I must emphasize strongly ? procuring ganja in Jamaica can be dangerous, and you must be extremely careful when doing so. The only typically safe way to find ganja is to broach the subject with a legitimate, respectable-looking person connected to a classy, well-managed resort or hotel where you are staying.
At almost every hotel along the cliffs, you'll find a ganja-friendly guy ? most often a gardener, bellhop, desk clerk, maintenance man, driver, or other reliable soul ? who is officially affiliated with the hotel. You will be offered herb (and often cocaine) by at least half of the people you meet in Jamaica, but you should only contract with somebody who can be known and trusted, and that is going to be someone who works for a reputable hotel such as the ones mentioned previously. Someone who, unlike a taxi driver or street stranger, is not going to lead you into a sketchy situation, take your money, provide you with schwag herb, or worse.
Sure, taxi drivers, street merchants, waiters, and other strangers will mutter, "You want some herb, mon?" as you walk down the street or beach, but do not get involved with them.
When you approach an individual to ask about ganja, be polite, alert, careful and discreet. If your intuition tells you that the situation is not mellow, shut up and leave the situation. If you are patient and wise, you will meet a reliable person who will provide you with quality ganja at a fair price.
High quality fresh Jamaican ganja costs $100 to $150 US per pound, and it is best to buy by the pound. You are expected to pay the middleman; a fair tip is $50 US.
Inspect, smell, and smoke the weed before you buy it; make sure the weed you buy is actually the weed you smoked.
You may not be puffer enough to smoke the whole pound, but don't even think about bringing herb back with you. Leave it behind, give it as a tip to your airport taxi driver, smoke it in a huge spliff before you go into the airport ? just don't bring it back with you on the plane.
Of all the marijuana travel destinations I can think of, Jamaica is my favorite. I love Holland, but marijuana there is very expensive due to the Euro exchange rate, and the fabled, pot-friendly nation just does not have the primo weather, beaches, and outdoor organic ganja gardens that Jamaica has.
The Irie One Love vibe is another reason to visit Jamaica. Yes, the country has big problems, and there's widespread violence in Kingston. But on the cliffs in Negril, at secluded beaches and waterfalls, and in rural Jamaica, the people are sweet, strong, and ethical, the earth is kind, and the feeling is laid-back friendly.
Ganja tourism is good for the island, and good for you.
When you're spliffing the cliffs overlooking the sea, listening to a classic Marley tune, reading Cannabis Culture in the sun, smoke one for me.
? Negril: www.negril.com