“There is recreational ganja use that is similar to alcohol use,” Chevannes explained, “but people told the Commission that ganja gives spiritual benefits. It helps them meditate and get in touch with their God. It helps them find a peaceful, contemplative inner voice.”
Chevannes’ insights were echoed by religious leaders who spoke to his Commission. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kingston and Jamaica’s top Anglican Bishop supported the idea that ganja use should not be a criminal offense.
The Archbishop stated that God created all plants for use by mankind, and that God has ordained humans to investigate the qualities and capabilities of plants and herbs. The Archbishop said he saw no reason for legal restrictions on the amount of marijuana a person could possess, and that he supported “conscientious use” for religious purposes.
“My thing is to respect a person’s conscience and anything done in moderation,” he said. “And if they see that it is something that can assist them in their prayer life and in approaching the divine, and [if]they genuinely and sincerely believe that God has provided it for them to assist them in that, then I can’t say to that ‘It is immoral.’ And I can say to the Government to decriminalize it, unless the Government can say it is going to be abused in [the]act of worship.”
The Anglican Bishop of Jamaica expressed views similar to his Catholic counterpart.
“To be consistent with Christian morality,” the Bishop said, “the fact that you are against something does not mean it should be a criminal offence. I would have no problem in decriminalizing limited private use by adults of marijuana, without compromising my position that it is not something that [one]would consider to be good or healthy or right.”
The Bishop told the Commission he had written a report on ganja in 1977. In that paper, he noted differences between recreational, medicinal and religious uses of ganja. He said it would be difficult to design legislation that decriminalized private and religious use but not recreational use, and that this difficulty was one reason he supported general decriminalization.
The Commission interviewed Jamaicans who believed that ganja laws were an affront to “God, the Creator.”
“Their argument is that ganja is a natural, not a man-made, substance, given by God to be used by mankind as mankind sees fit, the same way that He provides other herbs and bushes,” a Commission report stated. “As a natural substance, ganja does not even have to be cultivated. Spread by birds and other vectors, it grows wild. It therefore cannot be eradicated. God created other herbs but none of these is subject to the prohibition imposed by the law.”
A 32-year-old Montego Bay handyman testified that “God created all earth, trees, seeds, you know, so if you are going to fight against herb you are fighting against what He does. You already know that man fight against a lot of things that He does. If you are going to charge a man for [ganja], you have to charge God, because He make it.”
Jamaica’s Rastafari community is probably the most important religious voice in the ganja debate.
Rastafarianism, now famous because of Bob Marley and dreadlocks, has existed in Jamaica for approximately 70 years. Its roots can be traced to Marcus Garvey, a native-born Jamaican who rose to prominence in Jamaica and the US during the early 1900’s.
Garvey’s skills as an evangelistic orator, combined with his fierce criticism of racism and oppression of working people, made him into a heroic “prophet” for many Jamaicans. They viewed one of his prophecies ? that Africa would produce a modern-day “black king” who would bring respect and power to black people everywhere ? as being fulfilled by the crowning of Haile Selassie I as “supreme king” in Ethiopia in 1930.
Garvey rejected the idea that Selassie was God’s representative, but Selassie was greeted by tens of thousands of adoring Jamaicans when he visited Jamaica in 1966. He was reportedly amazed by Rastafarianism, and urged Jamaicans to strengthen themselves, liberate Jamaica, and then emigrate to Africa.
The Jamaican politicians and religious leaders who insisted that Selassie was a divine entity became the elders who created the Rastafari movement, deriving the movement’s name from “ras,” which means king, and “tafari,” which means “to be feared.”
Elder Leonard Howell built a commune near Kingston in the 1940’s, where he and other Rastas used ganja because it helped them find the “god,” or “Jah,” within them. They believed that the Bible ? one of the holiest books in the Rasta pantheon ? calls ganja “the leaves of the Tree of Life [that]are for the healing of the nations.”
Soon, the use of ganja became a widespread Rasta custom. The cannabis plant continues to be an integral part of Rastafarianism, and is revered as a sacrament.
Rastas believe that humans have erred by building a money-worshiping technoworld that Rastas refer to as Babylon. Prohibition of God-given plants is a symbol of the unnatural, evil nature of Babylon, according to Rasta theology.
Ganja laws are viewed as a symbol of Babylon’s unholy exercise of external authority. The Rasta community has boldly resisted the laws and their enforcement. This has caused Rastas to be relentlessly persecuted by police and wealthy elites who view Rastafarianism as a potent political force that unifies marginalized members of society. Elder Howell was arrested for ganja, and thousands of other Rastas have been arrested for it too. As in the United States, Jamaica’s war on ganja is a cultural war that views ganja use as a litmus test for identifying and harming a target group that is perceived as dangerously creative and defiant.
Several official groups of Rastafari representatives testified before the Chevannes Commission.
Leaders of the Church of Haile Selassie told the Commission that sacramental use of ganja is analogous to the doctrine of transubstantiation, which states that bread and wine are transformed during Christian communion services into “the body and blood of Jesus.”
Haile Selassie church leaders said Rastafari priests similarly transform ganja into “the body of the mighty Trinity” via a ritual involving the placement of ganja on an altar while it is being blessed by congregants and priests. During the ritual, congregants inhale “sacred ganja smoke.” This inhalation is referred to as a “communion.”
After the communion, church leaders distribute blessed ganja in small quantities to male Rastas 21-years-of-age and older, for private use at home. Such ingestion is not seen as recreational.
“We believe that when one is being initiated into those principles then one would see herb not as something to get high on, but as part of the body of Christ which gives strength,” one witness said.
Another Rastafari group, the Nyabinghi Elders of the Pitfour Tabernacle, told the Commission that Rastafaris believe that God made the natural world, and gave humans knowledge and authority to live honorably in it.
In their view, honor is shown when humans are good stewards of their own lives, of ecosystems, and of all life on the planet. The inherent gentleness and lack of exploitation in this code of conduct combines humanism, communalism and radical environmentalism in a manner seldom seen in technological societies. For this reason, many Rastas choose to live in “the bush” rather than in cities. They live “simple lives” that focus on family, health, natural foods, and ganja.
Rasta witnesses told the Commission that ganja is a revealer that helps people follow the “honorable path,” and that it is the central element of Nyabinghi Rasta ritual and living.
The Nyabinghi conduct ceremonial herbal rites several times a year in special tabernacles. The tabernacles and their grounds are sacred. Rasta farmers grow special ganja for specific use in “binghi” rituals, which sometimes last as long as 12 days.
The rituals center on prayer and communion between church members. They begin when a High Priest followed by seven priests and matriarchs lead a procession of children into the tabernacle.
The High Priest burns ganja on the altar and keeps it burning during each night of the ceremony. The elders and matriarchs smoke sacred ganja, while the children engage in drumming and chanting. Later, only adults are allowed to participate in all-night ceremonies that include prayer, chanting, toking, and drumming.
The Nyabinghi also engage in an activity called “foundation reasoning.” This reasoning helps them shape attitudes towards “politics, theology, repatriation, and reparation.” Participants discuss personal issues, but the focus is on the interaction of individuals and society, as well as issues such as ecology.
Such sessions include “supervised” use of ganja intended to put participants in touch with peaceful feelings, unity, and “consciousness.” Rasta philosophy describes ganja-conscious humans “as the temple of God, within which God dwells.” Using ganja is said to “stimulate this inner being through spiritual discourse.”
In these sessions, herb is smoked in joints or in a chalice, although Rasta witnesses said chalice smokers had to be very “mature and clean-spirited” due to the powerful hits delivered by this unique and potent form of inhalation device.
Before smoking commences, senior elders pray by invoking the name of Haile Selassie while sprinkling the herb with water. The gathered faithful sing psalms during this part of the ritual. Ritual ganja is sometimes mixed with tobacco because pure, or “ital” herb, is too strong for some participants.
Three non-affiliated Rasta spokespersons ? Ras Iya, Sister Ita and Sister Wood ? told the Commission that Rastafarians view ganja as part of a “spiritual way of life.”
Ras Iya said he does not smoke herb! Instead, he eats and drinks it, using a mortar to beat it into a pulp if green, or grinding it, if dry, in combination with other herbs, nuts and honey.
He uses it medicinally in combination with spices such as bissy, nutmeg, garlic, pimento, ginger and orange peel. Ras Iya said he had used this type of ganja preparation for 40 years, and that its medicinal effects had kept him from experiencing any sickness or pain during that time.
Sister Ita gave commissioners a different perspective about the “amotivational syndrome” that some people attribute to ganja. This syndrome postulates that marijuana smokers become lazy because they can feel good about life just by smoking ganja.
Sister Ita said that ganja changes peoples’ values and goals, removing their need to chase after Babylon’s definition of success. Ganja alters consciousness in such a way that users prefer to be in “natural creation more than being in town,” she commented, surmising that ganja induces a state of mind in which material things and the Babylon world become secondary, so that the herbalized person “begins to see oneself as a part of creation” rather than as a consumer of artificial, self-destructive products and pleasures.
“Most youths who use herbs are into a more sober, normal lifestyle than the downtown rush. It sobers one to a certain point where it takes you out of the rush, as I say, and it makes you more humble as well, more satisfied with what you have,” she noted. “It is a kind of escape route for some youngsters that creates a space where one can go, like people would go to church.”
According to Chevannes, the Rastas’ testimony shows that ganja prohibition interferes with religious freedom.
“Religion and ganja are linked,” Chevannes explained. “Religious belief and expression are universally recognized as basic human rights. It appears that ganja laws criminalize a basic component of our citizens’ religious practice.”
? For more on Rastafarianism: www.rastaheart.com