Part I: Touchdown in Jamaica
My plane left Atlanta on time, headed south. Below us, the Bahamas, hounded by a hurricane. To the right, Cuba, green and undeveloped, protected from the paving regime of 20th century industrialism by the US economic boycott against the island’s revolutionary ruler, Fidel Castro.
As we entered Cuban airspace at 36,000 feet, going 536 miles per hour, I read books on the history of Jamaica. I was flying on Air Jamaica, the island’s official airline. Attractive, cocoa-colored men and women served free Jamaican Red Stripe Beer. The flight was festive, consisting mostly of soused Americans headed for expensive resorts near Montego Bay.
The island’s history was far from festive. It was first inhabited by people who migrated from South America to the Caribbean, reaching Jamaica approximately 1200 years ago. These migrants, called Arawaks, were joined by a tribe emanating from the Amazon basin; the second tribe was called the Caribs.
Arawaks and Caribs lived in relative harmony with each other and their environment until a disaster named Christopher Columbus and the Spanish Conquest hit them in the late 1400’s. By 1520, the Spaniards had shown the natives the “loving Judeo-Christian god,” using Catholicism as a justification to kill, enslave, rape, burn and torture the natives while establishing Spanish outposts in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands.
England stole Jamaica from Spain in 1655. English emigrants began arriving in Jamaica en masse, and the island became a center for Caribbean slave trading, as Europeans robbed people from Africa to replace indigenous slaves who were dying from disease, starvation and brutality.
Slaves were forced to build massive sugar cane plantations and work them, a daunting task in the region’s blazing sun and tropical humidity. Rocked by slave revolts, the British Parliament abolished slavery in 1838, but freed blacks were still victimized by their owners and institutionalized discrimination. They staged another uprising in 1865, fomented by Jamaican folk hero Paul Bogle. The British crushed the uprising in an especially brutal fashion but resistance to vestiges of colonial rule continued, even after the island won independence from the fading British Empire in 1962.
Since then, Jamaica has become famous for its uninhibited tourist beaches, its volatile political system, Rastafarianism and reggae music, and of course, potent ganja.
A driver met me at Montego Bay’s airport, rescuing me from the teeming crowds of hustlers who tried to take my money in front of the terminal. We headed toward Kingston on a road built so long ago that it was totally inappropriate for motor vehicles. I sat terrified in my passenger seat as we sped past uniformed schoolchildren barely an inch away from our bumper, or overtook a truck crowded with screeching chickens on a mountain road so narrow that my door scraped the hedgerow on the side of the road.
There was no road rage or panic, however. My adept driver, other drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians all shared the winding road cheerfully and stoically, with nary a gesture or invective. Everyone seemed quite resigned to life or death possibilities.
The scenery was spectacular but unsettling ? verdant forests, gurgling rivers, waterfalls, hibiscus flowers, scintillating ocean and beaches ? littered by shanties, beggars, cripples, crumbling houses, goats, garbage, defecation, sheep, cows, packs of dogs, police with machine guns, cadavers.
Finally we reached a frenzied, traffic-choked urban grid. Jamaica has yet to outlaw leaded gas; vehicles belching poison surrounded us. We pulled into a gas station guarded by private security agents carrying sawed-off shotguns. Gasoline cost $4 US per gallon. Newspaper headlines screamed about gas riots, the island’s escalating murder rate (nearly 700 this year), its trade deficit, a drop in tourism due to crime rate publicity overseas, political scandals. Melancholy and tension permeated the air.
My driver fought through the streets of Kingston, the Jamaican capital with its 700,000 population crammed between an ideal harbor and the coffee-famous Blue Mountains that rise behind the city. He deposited me at the doorstep of a mediocre hotel surrounded by barbed wire and squatter encampments. I had expected an island paradise, similar to Hawaii, but instead found myself soaked in sweat in the heart of the Third World.
The Doctor is in
From my hotel room, I looked out on Kingston, seeing smoke from small fires, packs of ravenous dogs, traffic jams, thunderstorms, Rastamen smoking spliffs playing soccer, rich tourists playing tennis oblivious to homeless sidewalk dwellers just outside the guarded gates of the hotel.
Someone knocked at my door. I opened it, relieved to find 81-year-old Dr Ronald Lampart, a famous Jamaican physician and long-time ganja activist. I’d read about Lampart on the internet, called him, and been invited to visit Jamaica to cover history in the making.
Lampart, who from 1976 to 1986 had been chief medical officer for the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church and an aide to Dr Melanie Dreher’s landmark ganja studies (see CC #15, #16), is one of many paradoxical, powerful activists in a newly-energized Jamaican ganja legalization movement.
Paradoxical because he doesn’t smoke marijuana, powerful because his education, social class and reputation are so impeccable that he lends irrefutable credibility to ganja culture, which has long been viewed by many Jamaican elites as a lower-class, criminal culture deserving oppression.
Educated at top schools in England and the United States, for 20 years the head of the 150-bed Princess Margaret Hospital in Morant Bay, at 81 a full-time physician who sees hundreds of patients a month, many of whom he treats without charge, Lampart is an unassailable spokesperson for the ganja movement.
“I don’t smoke the stuff,” he said emphatically, sounding and looking more like a person half his age. “I have never laid my hands on a spliff. I advocate legalization because I am tired of seeing the police using the ganja laws to arrest my barefoot brother on the street. Tired of them putting a man in prison for a spliff, using laws to brutalize and victimize poor people and those who are politically outcast or powerless.”
As a doctor who has performed hundreds of surgeries and treated tens of thousands of patients, Lampart is eminently qualified to determine whether ganja is harmful to individuals or society.
“I was the medical officer for the Coptic Church,” he explained, referring to a ganja-based spiritual group that was destroyed by government persecution in Jamaica and South Florida. “I worked in their compound in Saint Thomas. They had a few thousand acres on which they planted yams, bananas and other crops. They lived as a religious, self-sufficient, faith-based community. They got up at four in the morning and worked very hard all day. The children used ganja, and they too worked hard.
“I told the government: here’s the perfect control group for a ganja study; compare these people to anyone else, and you’ll find that they are as healthy, if not more healthy, than the rest of the population. The Coptics absolutely vanquished the idea that ganja makes people lazy. American visitors would come, thinking they were going to be partying non-stop, and the Coptics would work them in the sun and humidity; a lot of them couldn’t handle it.
“The Coptics prayed, took care of each other, and used ganja as their sacrament. They believed it was God’s bush, God’s weed; they used it for spiritual and medicinal purposes. They believed that ganja was responsible for their energy and success. I examined them for ten years, and found no negative effects from their use of ganja. None. They were most peaceful people, never involved in any crimes except the one that society had made against them ? the use of ganja. That is why I am working to change the ganja laws.”
He has other reasons as well. Like the American tourist college student who was arrested by Jamaican police for having a spliff, and chained to a bed in jail until he became ill. Or the Jamaican man shot in the back by police “in broad daylight at a cricket match; I had to operate on him in emergency because his jaw was fractured and his intestine punctured in seven places.” The man hired a lawyer and served a summons on the police officer who shot him, Lampart recalls. The day after the summons was served, the man arrived home to find a warrant for his arrest on marijuana charges.
During the Dreher study, Lampart helped Dreher and her team of medical and anthropological researchers build trust with rural, ganja-using women and their children.
“Of course these people were suspicious of us,” he says, “and we were prepared to find that they were harming themselves and their children by using ganja while they were pregnant and by giving it to their children. The social stigma has been in place for decades, that this stuff is bad for people and the people who use it are bad. We had specially-trained nurses and researchers coming in from Miami and Boston, and at first our subjects were afraid we would turn them in to the police. We were not out to prove anything good about ganja. We were objective. We turned the results over to the statistician and were surprised by the results: the ganja mothers and children were doing fine, in some cases better than non-ganja users.”
“The marijuana smoker is no threat to society.” Lampart continued, “The laws against marijuana are harmful. I write editorials for the top newspapers that emphasize this point. A friend of mine told me that his friend whispered, ‘Dr Lampart must be on the stuff, he must be using the thing.’ Like it is some dirty habit, like heroin addiction. And I absolutely have not used it, so nobody can say I am doing this because of a personal habit or for financial benefit. I do this for human rights, because I want to see Jamaican society become more just and fair.”
Pot power politics
The morning after Dr Lampart’s visit, I had breakfast with two powerful members of the Jamaican ganja legalization movement.
In a delightful garden setting I ate delicious, traditional Jamaican foods, noticing that the pineapple, guava, coconut, mango, banana and papaya grown by indigenous farmers in Jamaica tasted far better than the same fruits grown by factory farms in the United States, Mexico and South America.
My companions were Paul Chang, an environmental consultant and Notre Dame-educated architect who is also a board member of the Hemp Industries Association, and Louis Moyston, a political historian, educator, writer and consultant who has been active in Jamaican politics for nearly three decades.
Chang, a savvy Jamaican-born man of Asian descent, does business and advocates for hemp and marijuana in Canada, the US, Europe, the Caribbean, and Asia. He founded Jamaica’s “Legalize Ganja Campaign” in 1995, but admits that ganja activism has “had some negative effects on my viability as a businessman, because certain people are prejudiced against ganja.”
Fighting injustice is literally in Chang’s blood ? his engineer father Leonard Chang fought against British civil service apartheid that prevented Jamaican nationals from advancing to top positions in the Jamaican government.
“Dad was the first Jamaican to break through the discrimination in the government engineering service,” Chang said proudly. “He was a trailblazer.”
Now, Chang has himself become a trailblazer.
“After my son Dominick was born, he’s six now, I was smoking a spliff and realized that the police could come in and take me away from my family right in front of my child,” he said. “I already knew that hemp and cannabis had a miraculous array of medical, industrial, spiritual, and economic benefits. I decided to become more active in assisting other Jamaicans in changing the government’s policy on this plant.”
Louis Moyston, 45-years-old and a rising star in Jamaica’s ruling political party, the People’s National Party (PNP), explained that I would be accompanying him and Chang to the PNP national party convention being held at the national arena nearby.
Chang and Moyston were excited that they and ganja allies within the PNP structure had managed to place ganja legalization on the official itinerary of the PNP’s conference agenda.
“The PNP is the more progressive of the two major Jamaican political parties,” Moyston said, naming the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) as the PNP’s more conservative counterpart. “PNP has the most influence on government policy. The National Alliance for Legalization is asking PNP delegates to approve a proposal that will set up a mechanism for objective study of the legalization question.”
Chang drove me and Moyston through bustling streets to the national arena, which is situated across from the national stadium. In an alcove on the street in front of these edifices was a statue of Bob Marley. Hundreds of delegates streamed in and out of the arena. Some smoked ganja while eating “jerk” chicken and pork, succulent, spicy food that is a Jamaican staple. I noticed that, unlike political conventions in the United States, the PNP’s convention seemed to be truly grassroots. Some delegates were dressed in business suits, but others wore rough-hewn work clothes. Moyston explained that PNP conferences were truly democratic: people of all social classes and orientations worked to create public policy reflecting the will of most Jamaicans. Rich people, professional politicians and corporate lobbyists did not own the PNP, he noted.
Moyston’s egalitarian view was backed up by the conference’s opening prayer, which asked God’s help in “the search for truth.”
“May information not be suppressed,” the prayer continued. “May experts be honest in their interpretation of facts and not deliberately mislead the public. May we use what we know to create what ought to be. May all our laws be just to all groups and help integrate us as a people. May all our pursuits contribute to the making of community life where all feel wanted and accepted.”
Inside the arena, I met top government officials, among them Minister of Agriculture Roger Clarke, who was running for a party vice-presidential position.
“It’s a sensitive subject, the demonization of ganja,” he said carefully. “It’s time to take a close look at the pros and cons of this plant. It has industrial and medical value. But we are a small island in a larger world. We have to take into account what the rest of the world thinks. But there are major changes taking place in hemp and marijuana policy in the rest of the world, and those may assist Jamaica. I come from a major agricultural region, so I am keenly aware that Jamaica is a fertile garden blessed with the ability to bountifully grow a wide variety of plants. It remains to be seen if this plant will soon be one of them.”
Ganja is everywhere
Ganja is everywhere in Jamaica, and despite dangers from police and rip-offs, ganja tourists should easily be able to find the kind without losing their behind.
Sex, drugs and money
As with many impoverished countries, cash will get you anything you want in Jamaica. Sex, pot, cocaine – it is all readily available if you are willing to pay for the product and to pay those who provide you access to the product. But never forget that money transactions in foreign countries ? where an outsider is purchasing contraband and/or an illegal service ? are opportunities for disaster as well as pleasure.
Most tourists familiar with Jamaica will tell you that the Negril region is the ganja-friendliest. It’s close to Montego Bay airport, and home to mega-expensive resorts where Europeans and North Americans come to play and play to come.
Negil is the ganja tourism haven, but ganja can be purchased from many variety stores and roadside stands throughout the island. I visited six such businesses to inquire about ganja. They do not overtly advertise ganja sales; they sell candies, coconuts, fruit and other legal goodies. Some were in Kingston, some in a rural area near Negril. Ganja was available in three of them. All I had to do was ask.
Bucks for buds
Two of the three ganja sites offered only small, plastic-wrapped nuggets of compacted bud, selling for about $1 US. The tiny parcels contained approximately one half to three quarters gram, enough to roll a one paper spliff.
The herb was surprisingly fresh. You can determine the freshness by squeezing the bag; if the herb feels dry and brittle, it’s probably no good. If it is springy, light brown or green, has visible resin glands, and has been stored in an ice chest (most roadside stands and small stores have no electricity), it is likely to be quality pot.
The third ganja site had tiny bags and a basket of long, dried buds. The buds were well manicured, perhaps a bit more leafy than some of us would be used to. They were sticky, somewhat dusty, reddish brown. The price for an ounce: $30 US. The vendor said me she could get me a pound for $200 US.
If you are in a hip resort hotel or area, you can feel reasonably safe asking a bartender, taxi driver, waiter, or other service provider about procuring ganja. You’re expected to pay a fee to anybody who helps you get anything illegal.
In Kingston, taxi drivers, Rastafari, and street vendors seemed to be safe sources for ganja. The tourist hotels there (such as the Hilton and the Pegasus) are a bit straight; I wouldn’t have felt comfortable asking the personnel at most upscale Kingston hotels for ganja.
Don’t do ’ems
Unless you want to end up dead or in jail, you have to be very clever and alert when procuring ganja. Intuitional and rational antenna should be highly-attuned for the rip-off vibe. Do not go to any drug transaction away from your hotel area. Do not give your money to somebody who promises to come back with ganja. Do not go into the back of a store, vending stand or house; make the vendor bring the herb to you. Do not go out alone. Do not buy pre-rolled joints. There’s no need for total paranoia, but be cautious, careful and smart.
Some Jamaicans may be suspicious of you, thinking you are CIA, DEA, Jamaican undercover, or some other quisling informant type. Money usually helps them get over their suspicions. If you get a bad feeling about somebody, if the transaction seems tense or weird, get the hell out. Better you find herb somewhere else or even not at all, than to get robbed or harassed.
But what, you may ask, is the herb like? All the herb I procured was tasty, potent, organically grown outdoors, had a beautiful aroma, was well worth the money. There were few seeds and stems, no sign of mold or other pollutants. Other tourists told of their experiences with schwag, but I didn’t see or smoke any schwag.
Overall, it’s almost as easy to get Kind bud in Jamaica as it is in Amsterdam. The prices are incredible, the stone is tropical, and the ganja season is year-round. It’s fun to get high there too. Jumping off cliffs into the Caribbean is even more of a rush when you just inhaled your very own spliff of Jamaican ganja.
Especially if you are a US citizen, don’t be tempted to bring any of this inexpensive medicine back home with you. Almost every flight arriving from Jamaica is greeted by fascists and canines. US Customs is ever more brutal in its attempt to build Fortress America. So leave your Jamaican bud behind. Bring home photographs, Blue Mountain coffee, and memories. And visit Jamaica often ? the island needs your tourist dollars to stay afloat.
Part II: Herbal history
Like most North Americans, I’ve always thought Jamaica unconditionally welcomed cannabis and cannabis culture. People who lived in Florida and other parts of the Southeastern US during the 1960’s and 70’s remember fleets of planes dropping bales of prime Jamaican weed for coastal retrieval. The fame of reggae superstars like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, enmeshed in ganja-shrouded Rastafari religion, gave Jamaica a reputation as a country that enthusiastically embraces its ganja roots.
But as Dr Lampart, Louis Moyston, Paul Chang, and others explained to me, Jamaica has a considerably more complicated relationship with ganja than one would expect. Cannabis is not native to Jamaica, for example ? it was most likely introduced to the island by African slaves and East Indians in the 1700’s and 1800’s. Its use was associated with working-class people, influenced by Hindu beliefs, and a source of increasing worry for the British ruling class who saw ganja as part of a dangerous, rapidly-growing black consciousness movement.
“The authorities were against it right from the start, because it made people feel good, it gave even the poorest person a bit of pride and made them think they were somebody,” is how Dr Lampart explained it.
Government reports began to contain warnings about ganja as early as 1883. In 1911, influential Christian churches, many of which still wield considerable power in modern Jamaica, began officially preaching against the plant and its users. In 1912, the Council of Evangelical Churches asked the island’s Legislative Council to outlaw ganja. In 1913, Jamaica added ganja prohibition to its consent agreement with the International Opium Convention, becoming one of the first countries to criminalize cultivation and importation of cannabis sativa.
As Moyston pointed out in a prescient and wide-ranging article published in a major Jamaican newspaper during my visit, Jamaican ganja criminalization was accompanied by propaganda and police state tactics that foreshadowed those used by anti-pot forces in the United States in the 1930’s.
“The Jamaican police force was reorganized after Bogle’s 1865 slave revolt,” Moyston told me. “The British built a paramilitary force modeled after the Ulster constabulary in Northern Ireland, where police were designed to hold down the people, rather than be a part of the community. Police leaders, church leaders, and the media were responsible for spreading spurious anti-ganja information that led to stricter ganja laws.”
In 1924, Jamaica criminalized possession and smoking of ganja. In 1941, spurred on by American drug war hysteria and fear of nascent Rastafarianism, Jamaican authorities established mandatory one-year prison sentences for a first ganja offense; a second ganja offense caused a mandatory two-year term. The 1941 law also contained a provision allowing police to arbitrarily decide that a person possessed marijuana with intent to sell or export it, thus ensuring a prison term.
In the 1940’s and 50’s, Jamaica had its own analog of Harry Anslinger, the dishonest American drug czar who pioneered the use of weird, scary pot stories (“The Killer Weed That Turns Our Children Into Fiends!”). America’s Anslinger was largely responsible for the original US marijuana prohibition that began in 1937; Jamaica’s Anslinger was police commissioner T Calver, who claimed that four youths raped a woman while under the influence of marijuana and repeatedly alleged that ganja caused violent crime. He also offered huge cash rewards to people who snitched on marijuana offenders.
Calver’s anti-ganja scare campaign failed to catch fire, but in 1960, a cadre of ganja-using revolutionaries allegedly killed several British soldiers during a protest. This led to enactment of harsher marijuana penalties in 1961.
After years of colonial rule, Jamaica gained independence from England in 1962. The country’s first Jamaican Prime Minister, JLP leader Alexander Bustamante, is alleged to have been a handpicked lackey of the British regime. He took office pledging to fight against rape and ganja.
JLP and PNP politicians sparred over Bustamante’s extremist ganja policies, which included asset forfeiture provisions. JLP officials lied about marijuana, using reefer madness propaganda. PNP officials protested the lies and the new police powers JLP’s proposals would create. Punitive new laws were passed in 1963. These laws escalated Jamaica’s war against ganja; the use of informants, police brutality, helicopters, severe prison sentences and other fascist tactics became commonplace.
The police and other government jackboots used the marijuana laws as tools for oppression during the 1960’s, as Rastafari and Marxist factions gained stature by challenging the imprint of colonialism on the island’s socioeconomic and cultural hierarchy.
After the 1972 publication of “Ganja in Jamaica,” a landmark scientific research study (Dr Melanie Dreher was one of the researchers) showing that marijuana posed no harm to individuals or society, Jamaican officials removed mandatory minimum penalties for ganja use and possession.
Later in the same decade, widespread ganja growing and exporting caused US officials to demand that the Jamaican government rev up the island’s drug war, but instead of bowing to US pressure, the country’s politicians almost legalized ganja in 1977 and 1978!
According to PNP Representative Paul Burke, whose PNP Region Three Kingston area enclave contains a large proportion of the Party’s power base, and Independent Senator Trevor Munroe, who earlier this year made a motion that asked the Senate to consider revising current ganja law, a bi-partisan and aptly-named Joint Select Committee of Parliament studied the ganja issue in 1977-78 and recommended that private possession of two or less ounces of ganja not be a criminal offense.
I met the erudite, Oxford-educated, Rhodes Scholar Senator Munroe at an activists’ luncheon held at Dr Lampart’s charming country home near Kingston. Munroe, whose educational specialty is comparative Caribbean politics, teaches political science at the University of the West Indies. As we toured Lampart’s estate, marveling at colorful coffee beans, fruit trees, flowers and a series of scenic waterfalls and pools hand-built by Lampart in his spare time, the 54-year-old Munroe explained that he had admired many features of the 1977 recommendations, and had himself proposed a ganja reform resolution soon after being appointed to the Senate by PNP Prime Minister PJ Patterson in January, 1998. Debate on the 1998 proposal stalled, so Munroe brought it up again in April, 1999.
The 1977-78 subcommittee proposal included provisions that levied a mere $10 fine for possession of two ounces or less of ganja in a public place; imprisonment would not be an option in such an offense, and a conviction for the offense would not create a criminal record. The proposal also would have allowed doctors to legally prescribe medical marijuana, and would have set up a well-funded government agency to grow and process medical grade ganja, and supervise its use as medicine and in medical experiments.
Burke’s Region Three proposal, formally adopted at the PNP convention with overwhelming support, also echoes many of the 1977-78 recommendations. Burke is confident that a government-supported ganja research committee will soon be chartered;
he expects the committee to be a diverse group of officials and experts who will produce a credible, wide-ranging, pro-ganja study “within 18 months.”
“Before the PNP vote, I gave this about a 60 to 40 chance of passing the Senate,” Munroe said, congratulating Burke, Moyston, Chang and other activists for helping the PNP to become the first major party to officially support ganja reform. “Now I give it a 90 percent chance of success. I expect it to be debated in October or November.”
“There’s an ongoing change in peoples’ attitudes toward this issue,” Munroe explained. “The PNP has been very forthcoming, and a progressive JLP representative came to me and said he’d do what he could to get them on board too. Surely there’ll be differences of opinion, but nobody can justify giving people criminal records for simply possessing or using this plant.
“Thousands of people have had their lives ruined by these laws, and it has done no good. I am even proposing that we consider cleansing past criminal records relating to ganja. We have to understand that this isn’t really about ganja, it’s about basic human rights and restoring a sense of fairness to our justice system. People can use the more toxic substances ? tobacco and alcohol ? in public and in excessive amounts, and it’s legal. How can it therefore be right to arrest people and give them a criminal record for private, personal use of ganja?”
Drug war imperialism
Burke, Lampart, Munroe and most of the Jamaican ganja activists I met do not smoke marijuana. Ironically, these fierce freedom fighters are the straightest of the straight, men and women whose dignity, considerable achievements and elevated societal status put their motives beyond reproach. Their support for better policies, based on economic, cultural and social justice concerns rather than their desire to smoke a spliff without fear of arrest, is part of a broad-based, pro-ganja attitude held by a majority of Jamaicans. So why is ganja still illegal in Jamaica?
“There’s a lot of people who have a vested money interest in this issue,” explained Lampart. “Drug counselors, urine testers, bureaucrats, police agencies and private organizations make a lot of money spreading lies about ganja and perpetuating its prohibition. They want to keep their jobs. They want to keep getting money from the Americans.”
Lampart proved to be a prophet. Within days of the PNP’s passage of the pro-ganja resolution, the United States Embassy in Kingston launched a new anti-ganja campaign. In an amazingly candid statement that inadvertently revealed the extent that Jamaican sovereignty has been compromised by America’s war on drugs, Deputy Chief of Mission James Cason bragged that the US government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars during the last ten years to fund and manage Jamaican anti-drug campaigns.
According to Cason, the US Military Information Support Team (MIST) had infiltrated civilian and military personnel, as well as US drug war propaganda, into Jamaican government agencies, media organizations, and non-governmental organizations.
MIST had been responsible for designing and distributing DARE-style propaganda: television, radio and newspaper ads, school programs, posters, bumper stickers and billboards, even coloring books.
The MIST message is the same discredited set of lies distributed by anti-drug forces in the US. MIST emphasizes a “Just Say No” approach, lies about the harmfulness of marijuana, encourages people to narc on their friends and families, and targets marijuana while virtually ignoring drugs that all Jamaicans agree are causing catastrophic problems in Jamaican society: heroin and cocaine.
Cason seemed most proud that MIST was working with Jamaican entities like the National Council on Drug Abuse and an organization called Addiction Alert to produce materials that showed “real Jamaican people in real Jamaican settings.”
The US Embassy’s involvement in internal Jamaican affairs has angered many Jamaicans.
According to Richard Crawford, an energetic legal reform advocate who is also an educator and political organizer, foreign governments have long interfered in Jamaican politics.
“It is definitely of racist origin, the foreigners’ belief that we Jamaicans are not smart enough to police ourselves, that we need some outside power to tell us what to do. I notice that our National Security Minister, KD Knight, is getting even further into bed with the Americans,” Crawford observed.
I knew what Crawford meant. Knight had been one of few people to attack Burke and Moyston’s ganja resolution at the PNP conference, and he was roundly booed for doing so.
Knight’s objections to Burke’s ganja resolution were an odd amalgam of reefer madness, zero tolerance law enforcement, and surprisingly, his contention that growing low-THC hemp might not be illegal in Jamaica. Knight is known as a drug war hard-liner whose res-ponse to the country’s high level of gun violence and crack cocaine addiction is to put police and military units on the streets. During an especially bad outbreak of street violence last July, Jamaican Defence Force soldiers patrolled many communities. Soldiers and police are routinely accused of being as corrupt and violent as the drug gangs and other criminals they are allegedly fighting; nearly 200 Jamaicans have been shot dead by government officials in 1999.
Even though he has tremendous power, and routinely resorts to writing long letters in the country’s newspapers defending his policies, Knight has become something of a joke. He is widely rumored to be a closet marijuana smoker; there have even been cartoons depicting the anti-drug Minister smoking a spliff!
Knight disgusted Crawford and other ganja activists by flying to Washington to visit US Attorney General Janet Reno in September. Reno, whose tattered reputation is at an all-time low due to revelations that the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) covered up the use of weaponry that probably led to the incineration of women and children at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas several years ago, offered Knight those same discredited agencies for use in Jamaica.
Not only did Knight look foolish by accepting the assistance of rogue US agencies that are under Congressional investigation for possible criminal wrongdoing, but he also admitted that a team of FBI and ATF agents were already in Jamaica, assisting police and military officials in intelligence gathering, anti-drug activities, and searches of cars and houses.
Knight announced that an ATF agent would be stationed full-time in Kingston, and that the FBI and ATF would work closely with Interpol and Jamaica’s National Drug, Firearm and Intelligence Centre (NDFIC), its Forensic Laboratory and its Narcotics Division.
Crawford expressed frustration with such developments.
“The American government has a history of turning a blind eye to government and individual lawbreaking that serves American interests. They have worked with drug lords and dictators throughout our region. It is a ridiculous policy, them spending so much money fighting ganja exports to the United States, when the real problem is not ganja, but the guns and crack cocaine coming in here from the United States. The Americans and some members of our government are using our problems as an excuse to establish even more of a police state here,” he said.
A sharp distinction
Jamaican anti-drug forces aren’t sucking off only the American tit: Jamaica’s Finance Minister announced recently that the European Union’s Development Fund has given the equivalent of 50 million Jamaican dollars to the country’s Integrated Drug Abuse Prevention Project.
All the ganja activists I interviewed agreed that crack cocaine and other hard drugs cause serious problems in Jamaica, but they want drug users treated by medical professionals, psychologists, counselors and job specialists, not by police and military officials.
Trevor Macmillan, whose training at the Royal Military Academy in England and years as an army colonel helped him have the expertise to run the entire Jamaican police force from 1993 to 1996, thinks cops should get out of the drug war.
“Let me make it clear,” the 60-year-old Macmillan says, “when I was police commissioner I was scrupulous in making sure all laws were implemented. That was my job. But I came to realize that the illegality of drugs and the drug trade causes violence and corruption. There is no way you can win this war this way. The vast sums of money spent on this war should be spent on educating people about the harm of drugs. They have reduced the use of cigarettes considerably, not by arresting smokers and tobacco growers, but by telling the truth about cigarettes. The same could be done for illegal drugs.”
Yet Macmillan denied that his police officers selectively used ganja laws to violate civil liberties or enforce personal vendettas.
“They have no discretion. They have to enforce all laws,” he said.
The former commissioner says he received “technical anti-narcotics assistance” from the US, Canada and England during his tenure.
“The Brits and Canadians provided support for our anti-drug operations, but the Americans were different. They want you to pass them intelligence information, but they won’t share any with you. They say it’s because all Caribbean nations have corrupt police forces, but they need to understand that respect is mutual. All nations want to feel that their sovereignty is respected. I can tell you this, if the US would do half as much work as we do, we wouldn’t have as many guns coming here from the US, causing all this violence.”
Part III: The Lion of Zion
The battle over Jamaican ganja is not just about geopolitics and social control. It also involves spiritual warfare ? a conflict of good and evil that involves the entire Caribbean. As a Rasta man told me, “Jamaica is a lion whose roar is heard throughout the tropics; if it legalizes herb, other nations are likely to follow suit. This little place, and these little people, can roar down the beast of Babylon, your country (the US) and those who do its bidding.”
Paul Burke and Louis Moyston confirmed that the ideological and actual descendants of religious groups that caused ganja to be outlawed in the early 1900’s were also active in opposing ganja liberalization in the 1970’s.
“The main opposition in 1977 came from two church groups ? the Jamaican Council of Churches and the Jamaican Evangelical Society,” Burke explained.
As he spoke, I recalled something that had troubled me earlier as I took Moyston’s picture next to the Marley statue. In back of the statue was a huge billboard, white lettering on a black background, purporting to speak for the Judeo-Christian “God.” I had seen these same billboard formats ? white lettering on black background, with “God” as signatory spewing hellfire messages typical of Americanized fundamentalist doctrine ? throughout Jamaica. I’d seen exactly the same type of billboards in other places ? most notably in redneck American police states such as Kansas, Oklahoma, Alabama and Georgia, places where the drug war, racism, anti-environmentalism and hog farms are as American as apple pie and ice cream.
Moyston and Chang seemed especially pleased that I had noticed the connection between American-based Christian fundamentalism and anti-ganja sentiment. They told me of the ravages of outside interference in Jamaican affairs, about black nationalist freedom fighters like Marcus Garvey, Leonard Howell and Rasta leaders whose resistance to cultural imperialism and oppression are part of Jamaican folklore.
Wit the help of my hosts and other sources, I pieced together the insidious influence of organized “Christian” religion on the island. Catholicism wiped out indigenous culture early on, by opposing folk magic and herbal medicines in the Caribbean during the days of the Conquistadors. Blacks were given two choices: be Catholic or be killed.
Protestant missionaries began invading the region in the 1600’s. Some of them were principled people who protested slavery and colonialism, but the most powerful Christian religious organizations whored after the ruling elite by advocating and enabling slavery, and by opposing black identity movements that included obeah (an Africanized form of healing magic) and ganja.
Burke said that Christian religious opposition to 1970’s ganja proposals, along with other Jamaican political realities, kept the subcommittee’s decrim recommendation from being enacted as law.
During my time in Jamaica, in conversations with Rastas, street people, taxi drivers and other “regular” Jamaicans, I heard time and again that most Jamaicans resented the influence of American fundamentalism.
“Look around at the damned Mormon, Baptist, Catholic and Seventh Day Adventist churches,” commented my 24-year-old taxi driver as we passed a Mormon enclave. “They’re tax-exempt organizations that send missionaries here to poison our minds and control our people. They treat us like children, giving us trinkets and free food; they’ll help us as long as we bow to their god. They oppose ganja, Rastafari, birth control and independent thought. They support American economic domination and the police. We need to rid ourselves of these foreigners.”
If I had a rocket launcher…
It would have been tempting to dismiss such sentiments as examples of paranoia or xenophobia, but evidence of American involvement in Jamaican drug politics is easy to find.
I personally witnessed US military personnel, accompanied by Jamaican police and national defense forces, operating in Jamaican coastal waters. I was snorkeling in the crystalline, velvety Caribbean approximately 45 miles from Kingston, entranced by thousands of colorful tropical fish and the gently sloping canyon that appeared hundreds of feet below me, when my reverie was interrupted by the ugly sound of two helicopter gunships cruising about 400 feet above the water nearby.
Initially, I thought the copters might contain rescuers searching for a sinking boat or a drowning tourist snorkeler, but after I removed my steamy dive mask and tracked the noisy birds, I realized that these military machines were on a search and seizure mission.
One copter remained over water, near my position about 500 yards offshore; the other was making forays into the mountains that rose from near the coastline. Suddenly, they closed ranks over the sea and sped down the coast. A few minutes later, I saw a US coast guard vessel coming straight toward me at a high rate of speed. I’m used to having to evade reckless watercraft, having dodged many a drunken, polluting, heedless jetskier during long-distance swims in various bodies of water, but this vessel was going so fast that I barely had time to remask and dive down 20 feet before the infernal ship swirled overhead. The idiots could have killed me.
Infused with indignation, I swam for shore, collected my gear, and sprinted to a telephone. I couldn’t get an honest answer from the US embassy, the Jamaican Ministry of Defense, or local police, but local residents later told me that the copters and coast guard vessel had been chasing fishermen in Bowden Bay.
I was told that US and Jamaican military personnel and machinery would “come around a lot,” by a woman whose roadside vending shed sold cold Guinness beer and “iced jelly,” which is the delicious soft fruit scraped from inside a fresh coconut. “They harass the poor fishermen and scare them to death. Last time, they arrest two men from Bahamas with their boat, but they don’t find no drugs. Just an empty ship. Now the men got to spend $40,000 or a year in jail down in St. Thomas on some immigration thing. They used to be using the British helicopter to do this; now it’s the American.”
Now alerted to the possibility of drug war invaders nearby, I continued my love affair with the Caribbean, its water so clear that I could see moonbeams dancing on my arms at midnight 20 feet below the surface. Floating offshore on an idyllic Tuesday afternoon, I was again disturbed by military helicopters. Some more poor fishermen being harassed by the US government, I thought.
Later, I found out my intuition had been correct. Government officials confirmed that a 40 foot boat powered by two 200 horsepower outboard engines had been chased by US airplanes, Jamaican helicopters and Jamaican coast guard boats. The official explanation, much of which was in serious doubt by the time I left Jamaica several days later, was that the US military had been tracking the boat ever since it left Colombia on Saturday night.
US Coast Guard officials in Miami radioed Jamaican forces Tuesday afternoon, after the three men in the boat were allegedly seen tossing bales of ganja into the water. Jamaican helicopters and boats picked up the pursuit, forcing the terrified, alleged smugglers to run their blue boat onto the beach at Yallahs, which is approximately 35 miles from Kingston.
Three men ? two Colombians and one Nicaraguan ? were arrested and taken to be interrogated in Kingston. The US Coast Guard claimed it had recovered several of the dumped bales of marijuana, but didn’t seem to be able to produce them as evidence for Jamaican authorities. The men were charged with immigration violations ? for not telling Jamaican authorities that they were being chased and forced to ground their boat on a Jamaican beach ? and another glorious victory was declared in the war on drugs.
Angering the butcher
Drug war victories in the Caribbean usually come at a price: the loss of sovereignty for small nations unfortunate enough to be noticed by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs, Central Intelligence Agency, Navy, and Coast Guard.
During the Clinton administration, the US has used a carrot and stick approach with Trinidad, Mexico, Belize and other impoverished, tropical nations, offering money and other perks if they cooperate with militarized drug war activities, threatening to withhold money and otherwise punish countries who refuse to let US imperialists run roughshod over national borders and domestic policies.
Although Jamaican ganja advocates have mixed feelings about PNP Prime Minister PJ Patterson, they credit him with resisting America’s attempts during the early 1990’s to force all Caribbean nations (otherwise known as CARICOM countries) to sign onto the “Shiprider Agreement” which would allow US drug warriors unlimited access to Caribbean waters.
Most nations immediately signed onto the Shiprider accord, hungry for American money, military hardware and technical assistance.
But Patterson and the Jamaican Parliament stood up to the Americans, refusing to sign on until the Americans agreed to get permission from Jamaican officials before entering Jamaican waters and airspace. The US bowed to Jamaican pressure; the island signed the accord in mid-1997.
In the taxi on my way from the PNP convention to Kingston’s Bob Marley Museum, I asked the driver how he felt about Shiprider and other US intervention.
“They are invaders,” he answered. “Somebody always invading Jamaica. That be our history.”
Pointing to American fast food restaurants ? Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, and other fat food pits ? the driver lamented globalization, the World Trade Organization, the influence of corporate culture on Jamaican traditions and pride.
I’d been in Jamaica for a few days now, and was no longer surprised by the high level of political awareness displayed by “working-class” islanders. I recalled an earlier conversation I’d had with security guards at my hotel. They’d been forced to stay awake all night, guarding CARICOM heads of state and finance ministers attending a regional conference. The guards spoke of world politics with accuracy and wisdom, correctly identifying the US as the source for crack cocaine and guns that were flowing into Jamaica.
“We know what your Babylon country is doing to this world, mon,” one of them said, in a way that made me realize he might not like a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American journalist asking questions in the middle of the night.
Later, I cornered a CARICOM official in the elevator.
“Of course your country thinks of us as puppets,” he admitted derisively.
When I asked if anyone dared stand up to the US, he replied, “When you are in the position of being meat, you avoid angering the butchers.”
But my taxi driver, sweating in his un-airconditioned Toyota, wasn’t worried about offending butchers.
“You want to know where all the traffic jam come from,” he said, referring to the interminable line of cars ahead of us. “It was never like this in Kingston. Then the Jap car companies dumped thousands of crappy cars on us. Cars that had no pollution control and they couldn’t sell anywhere else. Like fools, the dumb Jamaican buys them. Now we can’t get nowhere and the air smell like shit.”
Trapped in traffic, we listened to Irie FM, a very hip radio station that played radical reggae I’d never heard anywhere else, and featured defiant and entertaining talk shows and disc jockeys who interspersed incredible music with a message of national pride, Rasta philosophy, and revolution.
Finally, we reached Hope Road, with Irie FM playing a song whose lyrics spoke of “rising up to fight for Jah’s great herb.”
At the front gates of the museum, I gave the driver a big tip. He smiled and said, “Bob Marley still alive,” before speeding away.
After spending so much time interviewing people about the fabled Jamaican marijuana crop, I was eager to get out in the countryside and see the righteous herb being grown. By showing copies of Cannabis Culture to people I met, and by sheer luck, several young Jamaican men agreed to guide me to the Promised Ganja Land.
One sultry, late afternoon, I found myself in a car on a dirt track heading into emerald hills. Men digging by shovel in the middle of the road, donkeys, tiny infants, silent grandmas cleared to let us pass. Excluding our car, I could well have been in the world as it was before the cursed Industrial Revolution: no chain saws, no leaf blowers, no weed whackers, no telephone lines. Just ebony people, musical silence, green jungle.
We parked at a clearing. I hoisted 50 pounds of cameras onto my back, and struggled to keep up with H and N, my guides. We wound through a dense but sun-dappled forest, curtained by vines, coconut palms., guavas, limes, breadfruit, snakes, bamboo, singing birds. Without money or even a weapon, you would not starve in this forest. That abundant was its life.
H and N told me about growing herb in Jamaica, but it was hard to understand their dialect that combined English, French and Jamaican slang.
“The police came and burned the plot I used to have,” N said, shaking his head sadly. “They don’t find them much with helicopters here. It was because of informant. Somebody jealous of my herb, or paid by police, or stupid, who hurt their brother and the herb. It hurt the forest. I have to grow. I have to go cut and burn another place to open it for the light. Then I plant again.”
More hiking, blinded by sweat, crossing barbed wire fences. N hums and sings to himself: “Got to free the weed. Got to have the seed.”
We turned a corner and there before me was an acre of cleared, terraced hillside, festooned with ganja plants in varying sizes, shapes, stages of growth. Where the hill sloped and leveled there were small plants in ground rows. Next to them was a container with perhaps a hundred three-inch seedlings planted close together. Up the hill were larger plants, some nearing ten feet tall, light green, thin-leafed, with long, dense single colas and thick stalks, firmly rooted in the well-drained, pebbly soil.
There was no sign of insect damage or nutrient deficiency. Even though it was nearly sundown, some last rays of light were filtering in, illuminating a covered drying shed with several whole plants hung upside down inside.
H and N beamed with quiet pride as I murmured my praise for Jah’s crop, trying to balance my tripod in the crumbly soil, against gravity, on the steep hill. I smelled the glistening colas, peppery and sweet, totally organic, perfumed by solar power and clean rain.
N spoke of carrying water to the plants, growing year-round, worrying about heavy rains that interfered with drying and curing. He grows to support his love for herb, and to make a little money. Very little, in an already-depressed economy that used to benefit from exporting Jamaican ganja to the US, but now the government has interfered with that. A pound of organic, mountain-grown ganja nets only $2500 Jamaican dollars (about $80 US), and he wishes he had a fast boat.
The light fades as H stumbles toward the car. I hurriedly pack my cameras and pause to take a last long look at this miracle crop, this hunted plant, and the kind, dignified young man who has grown it. There is something religious in the moment.
By the time I’ve straggled back to the car, bought the guys a Guinness, cleaned my mud-caked cameras, and flopped down like a limp noodle in my tiny hotel room, I am ready for the sleep of the dead.
Three pictures of paradise
The next morning as the sun rose pink and effervescent, I was awakened by J, who had promised me several days before that he would find me a “big ganja garden” to photograph.
Bleary-eyed, I crawled to his car. It was air conditioned, and we needed it to be. Again a long drive, this time in the opposite direction, down a winding lane, again shrouded by tiny villages and communal living. We parked in the middle of the road, in a forest that was only 30 miles away from the one I had visited the day before, but different, taller trees, more water, more mud.
J introduced me to Charles, who carried a machete and a coil of hemp rope. It flashed on me that I was a foreigner going off into an uncharted forest with two people I didn’t know, one of whom had a long metal blade and a long, thick rope.
Our path was easy for a while, except for the mud, but then we began ascending a vertical hillside, through brambles, no footholds. J and Charles took the lead. I fell back, and then fell down hard on my back, on my tripod, on my cameras. The men were moving very fast, so I scrambled up, trying to see if my cameras had survived the crash. One had.
Near the top of a hill, surrounded on all sides by dense forest, I saw the welcome serrated leaves of approximately 200 plants, growing close together on half an acre of cleared land. Ash and burnt trees contrasted with vibrant ganja shining with morning dew in the watery air.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” Charles said, cutting open a coconut. “I had a thief steal my herb once. He liked my crop better than his own. He was jealous.” Charles paused to make a slashing motion with his machete. “Thieves answer to Jah. The hurricane was in 1980. That washed the crop away. Since then, good luck. We don’t get many male plants. Sometimes the cutter worms come and get the babies before they can get big. The rats try to eat them. I get up every morning this early and work this hard most months of the year.”
The soil Charles was growing in was not full of mud; it was well-drained, moist, rich. He told me that he started seedlings in the ground nearby, transplanted them, didn’t have a need for clones.
I told him about my magazine and its seed catalog.
“We need them Canada people to send us some different seeds,” he said. “We lost a lot of the old Jamaican stock. A lot of people came here with other seeds. Ice, Purple Skunk, Cambodian. We want to grow the Sativa, the tall and friendly herb, that grew here in the early days.”
I was taking pictures as we talked, until my back-up camera began to make weird noises.
Charles was standing in the middle of the field, a fat, billowing spliff in his mouth, holding over his head his machete in one hand and a bouquet of drying cannabis in the other.
“Take my picture, mon,” he said.
“Are you sure? I mean, this is going to be seen all over the world. We really don’t like to compromise anybody’s confidentiality,” I replied.
Charles laughed and a big cloud of smoke rose into the air, caught like a spectral morning in the sun’s filtered rays.
“I live in the bush, mon. Nobody can take me out of here. All them police and soldiers, they know not to come here. Take the picture.”
I took three shots. Then, the camera coughed and died.
Part IV: Redemption song
It was my mistake, telling the first people I met at the Marley Museum that I was an American writing for a pot magazine.
I had to listen patiently, sweat-stupid in the humid sun, as they told me how “fucked up” my magazine was for having written “shit” about Jamaica, Rasta culture and Bob Marley. They weren’t even going to let me in with my cameras unless I paid a huge fee amounting to hundreds of American dollars.
Underneath their misdirected anger, I sensed that they felt that Bob Marley’s life and image had been exploited and inaccurately represented by some other magazine. I kept telling them I worked for a Canadian-based pot mag. To my knowledge, I told them, we’ve never run an article on Bob Marley. My goal was to honor Marley. They finally let me take a few pictures from a few feet inside the gated compound, then they confiscated my cameras until the end of the standard 90-minute guided museum tour, which concluded with a video of Marley playing live.
Marley was born in a place called Nine Miles in Saint Ann’s parish in 1944. He rose to prominence as a soccer-playing, spliff-smoking, guitar-playing “mystic Rastaman” whose songs helped create the worldwide reggae phenomenon. Marley was more than an entertainer. He embodied Jamaican pride, resilience and spirituality, mixing fatalism with pragmatism, smiles with scowls, forgiveness with rebellion.
By the time he obtained official “National Hero” status in the 1970’s, he was already on his way to becoming a martyr. He refused to sell out and enjoy a life of herb and fame, instead trying to heal Jamaica as its turbulent political violence spiraled out of control.
When Marley agreed to play a government-sponsored concert event in late 1976, hardcore members of the JLP interpreted it as a sign that Marley favored the ruling PNP. This led to Marley, his wife Rita, and some members of his band and entourage being shot. Nobody was mortally wounded, but the shooting underscored Marley’s precarious position as a political-spiritual leader.
In early 1978, Marley agreed to participate in a Kingston “peace concert” featuring Peter Tosh and most of Jamaica’s other significant reggae musicians. During the show, which received worldwide media attention, Marley brought Prime Minister Michael Manley and JLP rival Edward Seaga on stage. As he sang the song “Jammin’,” Marley grasped the hands of Manley and Seaga so that the three of them held hands together over Marley’s head. People at the Marley Museum remember the moment with tears in their eyes.
But there are more tears in the Marley story. As with many young musicians during this era, Marley was worked too hard by his record company and the demands of the public. He was upset about events in his home country, where hundreds were being killed in brutal election-related violence. He and his handlers ignored warnings from doctors, warnings that foreshadowed a September, 1980 collapse while he was jogging in New York City. A neurologist gave him the grim diagnosis: terminal cancer of the brain. Rumors that Marley had been poisoned by the CIA, Scotland Yard, or some other nefarious government agency helped people transform their anticipatory grief into anger.
In 1981, Marley was doggedly trying conventional and alternative cures, including a visit to a West German doctor who had once been an SS officer. Nothing worked. He boarded a transatlantic flight headed home from the German hospice on May 9, but never made it to Jamaica. Bob Marley died in Miami, Florida, at age 37, on May 11, 1981.
Marley still alive
When people say Bob Marley still lives, they may be referring to people like Dennis Forsythe, a Jamaican attorney with training in sociology and a doctorate in economics who describes himself as a “plainclothes Rasta ? no dreadlocks.”
“Bob Marley had tapped into the power of the Rasta religion,” Forsythe explained, “which is connected to many other mystical movements ? African drumming, the potential for revival, good magic, the use of ganja to give a spiritual boost. It is medicine, all medicine, in that we feel a need to reach higher, and to be closer to a peaceful nature.”
Forsythe wants peace, but doesn’t want to be a victim of ganja laws, which he describes as “nothing more than an excuse for police to arrest people that they already don’t like who aren’t hurting anybody but they have to find some excuse to get them so ganja is it.”
In 1996, after Forsythe had been practicing law for six years, a woman who was mad at him told police that Forsythe used ganja. Forsythe had already suffered through political persecution at the University of the West Indies, because he taught and wrote that Rastafarianism is a bona fide, positive, political force that could rebuild Jamaican society.
The woman’s accusation was all it took for a gang of police to “mash down” his front door. They found two ounces of ganja, and hauled the radical attorney, his wife, her daughter and his toddler son off to jail.
“One of the terrible things about the ganja law is that most people just cave in and plead guilty and pay the fine,” Forsythe said. “They don’t want any criminal record. That impedes the rest of your life. They don’t want any more trouble. The law tries to rob you of your dignity, your will to fight back.”
Emboldened by the example of Rasta heroes past and present, Forsythe mounted a constitutional challenge against his arrest.
“I taught courses on religion for many years,” he explained. “It was clear to me that the law violated Section 21 of our Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and conscience. Ganja is the wisdom weed, a vital part of our religion. I represented myself after I asked eight different lawyers to represent me and finally decided I had to do it myself. This case went all the way to Jamaica’s Constitutional Court. My challenge was denied in May, 1997, but in a fashion that clearly shows the prejudice and ignorance of our conservative judicial system.
The Chief Justice, Mr Wolfe, said that my ‘contention’ that I must be free to practice the Rasta religion was ‘untenable.’ Mr Wolfe further said, ‘His understanding of the freedom of conscience is misguided. Taken to its logical conclusion, it would mean that the offering of human sacrifice in the practice of a religion would be unobjectionable.’ So there you have it. One of the most learned men in this country equates using ganja with human sacrifice. He supposes that he gets to define my religious experience, and prohibit it.”
Forsythe has considered the option of going above Jamaica’s highest court by appealing the decision to England’s Privy Council.
“I think the English judges would agree with my position,” he said, “and that it would set an international precedent. But it is so costly. I cannot afford to do it.”
But all is not lost. Forsythe told me he is about to release a book that outlines his struggle, and the struggle of others, against ganja laws worldwide. And he is cheered by a recent ruling handed down in Guam’s Superior Court. As Forsythe tells it, a Rastafarian holy man named Benny Guerrero was caught bringing ganja into Guam in 1991.
Forsythe says “Ras Benny” fought the charge by arguing that it violated his religious freedom.
“The judge agreed with him. He ruled in August that Ras Benny had proved he was Rasta, and that his use of marijuana is a part of his religion. He ruled that the government had no compelling interest to deny him the right to use his medicine, and that the law against ganja violated their Constitution and the US Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Judge Bordallo further ruled that if it is legal for Ras Benny to use and have ganja, it must also be legal for him to procure it. It is this kind of ruling that gives us hope,” Forsythe said. “It is this kind of ruling that helps us believe that justice and right will prevail.”
Epilogue: Back to Babylon
I sat on the balcony of my hotel room in Kingston on the last night of my sojourn, smoking a fine spliff, watching a steel band next to the pool twelve stories below. The herb, given me by J (see sidebar), was sweet and smooth, easy to roll, light up, and inhale. The high was cheerful and penetrating, easing my aching body, like the band’s calypso medley of Marley songs. “Is this love, is this love, that I’m feeling? No woman, no cry.”
I looked at my notes, my rolls of film, the kind buds I’d have to leave behind in the morning, remembering the taste of fried plantains, bammy, chicken baked in coconut, aged rum, roast breadfruit, mango.
Memories of conversations and images swept over me, like the glistening lights of Kingston, quiet now as the band finished their set, looking like a little village, jewels in the crown, gilded by mountains.
I heard again the voice of one of Dr Lampart’s relatives, an engineer of considerable social rank, who described being rousted from bed in the middle of the night by a police officer summoning him by phone to a roadside where his son and friends had been caught with a spliff. The officer hectoring the kids, attempting to shame them, surprised when the engineer dad didn’t join in the tirade.
The same man remembering a long time ago, in the days of mandatory minimum sentences: “We had a wonderful gardener, a family man, very quiet and good-hearted. Somebody took a dislike to him, and put some ganja under his bike seat, and called the police, and they threw him in jail for many months, and when he came out he was a ruined, destroyed, lost soul.”
I recalled my conversation with Dennis Daly, a 64-year-old human rights attorney and founder of the Jamaican Coalition for Human Rights, in 1968, who talked candidly about the police using ganja laws to crush people, especially Rastafarians.
“The government has special squads that are really paramilitary organizations with carte blanche to dismantle gangs by killing the gang leaders,” he said. “It amounts to execution in cold blood, so that they have become more criminal than the people they pursue. I am not a ganja smoker, but the law itself is a violation of human rights. To be honest, we are very close to becoming a police state.”
Those echoes stayed with me as I sent phat spliffs into the dark sky early the next morning, watching them rain down on the empty pool deck below, then checked out of my room.
At the airport, a huge, color mural depicted Jamaica’s tumultuous history, including a Rasta elder smoking an herb pipe. Then back on Air Jamaica, filled mostly with Jamaicans in business suits and a few dead-eyed tourists, partied out. Destination Babylon.
At Miami Airport, a beefy doughboy in US Customs Uniform with an ugly black drug dog bounded onto the plane before we even had a chance to unfasten our seatbelts. The fascist canine put his nose in my crotch, then sniffed my ganja-stained hands. His handler was looking down a Jamaican woman’s cleavage. I hit the dog with my tripod.
Imprisoned on the plane for ten minutes while the dog smelled everyone and everything, then herded like sheep up a ramp, under the watchful eye of more Customs agents, into a sterile, overly lit quarantine area. Standing in line forever while the dog glided up and down, putting its nose on everyone. Long-haired, arrogant, shifty-eyed male and female agents rudely pulled people out of line. “Why are you here? What do you have in your briefcase? How much money do you have? State your business in this country. Have you secreted anything inside your body? Would you please come with us to secondary search area?”
They forced a man carrying a fragile electronic testing device to practically disassemble the device on the ground, while three goons stood over him, prodding the machine.
I asked a female agent if I could take pictures. No, she replied, why do you want to? I’m a journalist. Really? Too bad. We usually search journalists. We can take your film. Do you have anything you want to declare?
Did I ever! What I wanted to declare was that the Rastafari are right. We are living in the end times, the apocalypse, Armageddon. It doesn’t rain as much as it used to, a grower told me, and when it does rain, “It be fierce. The balance is gone. Nature dying.”
Who doubts that the US is Babylon, metaphorically and literally? It exports death and drug wars all over the world, robs gentle men and women of their medicines, greets harmless visitors with police agents who would have been comfortable as KGB goons.
Waiting, waiting for the luggage. All luggage from all arriving Air Jamaica flights is delayed in all airports in the US, the ticket agent tells me, because US Customs searches for ganja. I see my suitcase in an hour. It has been opened, the contents disturbed.
It is not because I want to feel good in spite of it all that I flash on this final revelation. In the strength of an 81-year-old doctor, a university professor, a Senator, an Asian-Canadian-Jamaican, a Rasta attorney, and millions of allies in Jamaica and across the world, there is a culture, kindred spirits united by ganja, fighting Babylon.
What brought me together in easy friendship with men and women whose language, experiences, customs, prejudices, histories and tragedies are a world apart from mine? Ganja. The same sensi gardens I saw growing on the island hillside, I’ve seen in British Columbia, California, Florida, Europe. The same ganja spirit, the same tasty smoke rising from our lungs into the air. The same feeling of warmth and reassurance. The same resistance to evil, the dogged determination to kill the beast of Babylon, and to have fun doing it.
Yet with this Hitlerized century ending and the year 2000 rushing in, I find myself somehow optimistic.
I keep having this dream: I’m floating in the Caribbean on a raft made of palm trees. The helicopters and coast guards have crashed, boats loaded with ganja freely roam. With me is Charles, grinning his crooked grin and handing me a coconut. Dr Lampart is there, healing patients. Louis, the two Pauls, Dennises and Trevors are amicably discussing politics. KD Knight and the Prime Minister are smoking spliffs for the first time, laughing like children. Wives, babes and mistresses lounge with us, their perfume perfectly combines with the salt air.
I drink coconut juice, inhale a spliff, and we sing Bob’s songs long after the sun goes down. The island is free.
? People’s National Party (PNP): 89 Old Hope Road, Kingston 6, JA; tel (876) 927-7520 or 927-8886; fax (876) 927-4389; email [email protected]; web www.pnp.org.jm
? Jamaica Information Service: PO Box 2222, 58A Half-Way-Tree Road; Kingston 10, Jamaica, W.I.; tel (876) 926-3740; fax (876) 926-6715; email [email protected]; web www.jis.gov.jm