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Jamaica: Cannabis and Rastafari

Cannabis was initially introduced to Jamaica by some of the hundreds of thousands of slaves brought to the region from Africa between the 17th and 19th century (as described in an earlier blog ‘Cannabis in Africa’). However, the more influential importers of cannabis culture to Jamaica and other Caribbean countries were Indian indentured labourers, who were shipped to the region mostly from Kolkata and Chennai by British business men between 1843 and 1917 to work in sugarcane plantations. For this reason, cannabis is widely known in the Caribbean region as gāñjā, a Hindi term.

Initially, around 5,000 Chinese labourers were imported to Jamaica, but they proved to be unsatisfactory. They were replaced by around 33,000 Indian labourers (van Solinge 1996:3), who were brought in largely to replace African slaves, who were emancipated in 1838, when slavery was abolished. As a consequence of the influence and culture of Indian labourers, by the late 1840s cannabis use had become widely established in the Caribbean.

In countries neighbouring Jamaica, such as Suriname, Trinidad and Guyana, cannabis culture then gradually declined over the next few decades after the 1840s, becoming much less used by 1915. However, in the late 1960s and 1970s, in a global trend, cannabis culture then significantly revived in those countries. In Jamaica, by contrast, cannabis culture continued to flourish after the 1840s, spreading widely to both rural and urban African populations, the descendants of former slaves, who comprise around 80% of Jamaica’s 2.5 million population (Hamid 2002: x–xxxix).

Cannabis use in Jamaica

In Jamaica gāñjā is used as an aid for labour; it is also imbued with spiritual and religious connotations. The initial experience of smoking cannabis with others is generally regarded as a kind of ‘rite of passage’ for young men in gāñjā smoking communities (Ruben 1975:262). It was estimated that by the 1960s Jamaica had the highest rate of marijuana use of any country in the western world, used or previously used by up to 60% –70% of the poorer, rural, male population (a smaller percentage of females smoke it), not only for intoxication but also as a medicine and tonic (Comitas 1975:121). Making cannabis tea from young plants for therapeutic and medicinal purposes is very common in Jamaica, generally consumed by everyone, including old people, women and children. The effect of the tea is mild as THC does not readily dissolve in water.

The cultivation and importation of cannabis were made illegal in Jamaica in 1913, followed in 1924 by prohibition of its use, possession, sale and storage; in 1941 possession of the seeds were also prohibited and mandatory incarceration was introduced for any infractions of the law (Bandhopadhyay 2015:1). However, despite the laws, when smoking cannabis became popular worldwide in the late 1960s and 1970s Jamaica became a major producer and exporter. Cannabis became Jamaica’s main commercial crop, by the mid-1990s worth an estimated $1–1.5 billion a year (Solinge 1996:7–8). In February 2015, the law in Jamaica changed, allowing possession of up to 2 oz (57 gms) of marijuana, but only for scientific, medicinal and religious purposes.

Marcus Garvey and the political background of Rastafari

The Italian explorer Cristopher Columbus, who was sponsored by the Catholic monarchs of Spain, landed in Jamaica in 1494. This was followed by a Spanish dictatorship that lasted until 1665, when it was replaced by British colonial administration, which lasted until 1962, when Jamaica gained independence. Jamaica’s original inhabitants, the Arowak Indians, had become extinct by 1665 owing to persecution and death from European diseases (van Solinge 1996:2).

It was against the background of slavery, exploitation and European, colonial rule that the origins of the Rastafari movement originated in the 1930s in Jamaica. The person most influential in the initiation of this process was Marcus Mosiah Garvey. He was born in Jamaica in 1887 to a family descended from the Maroon tribes, who were involved in a local, black independence movement. By the age of fifteen, Garvey had become a radical journalist, promoting the ‘Back to Africa’ movement, which was campaigning for the repatriation of black people to Africa (Lee 2020:117).

To further his aims, Garvey went to Harlem (New York) in 1916 and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and his own newspaper, Negro World. Within a few years, UNAI claimed a membership of two million in the USA. He stated that he was not against the white race, but wished to spend all his time devoted to the development and cultural acknowledgement of the Negro race. In 1920, he also founded a shipping company, Black Star Line, which was intended to service repatriation to Africa. Garvey was widely hailed as a saviour and a prophet.

However, Garvey’s plans did not work out and he was jailed in 1925 for fraud and tax evasion. Released in 1927, he returned to Jamaica, later moving to England, where he died of pneumonia in 1940. He was highly praised by later black leaders in the USA and Africa, proclaimed a national hero in Jamaica in 1952, and was a great inspiration for the Rastafari movement. In a church in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1927, Garvey prophesised: “Look to Africa, where a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is here”. Garvey’s followers in Jamaica believed that the event that would take place in Ethiopia three years later, when Haile Selassie became Emperor, was the fulfilment of this prophecy. Garvey’s composition, ‘Ethiopian Song’, which hailed Ethiopia as the true homeland, became the anthem of the UNIA, and subsequently adopted by Rastafarians as their anthem (Lee 2020:174–184).

Ethiopia and Ras Tafari

Besides Marcus Garvey, the main historical figurehead in the Rastafari movement was Haile Selassie (1892–1975). Selassie was the son of Ras (‘Prince’) Makonnen and was named Tafari Makonnen, to become Ras Tafari. Selassie was crowned in a ceremony in 1930, attended by numerous foreign dignitaries, not only as Emperor of Ethiopia, but also as the Elect of God, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and Lord of Lords. Ethiopia was unique at the time being the only African country not under a European colonial administration.

According to an Ethiopian text, the Kebra Negast, Selassie’s ancestral monarchy traced back 3,000 years to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who was Makeda, Queen of Ethiopia (Lee 2020:37). Selassie’s religion was Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, which maintains the interesting belief (known as ‘monophysite’) that God/the divine is in every individual, not just in Jesus Christ. As Emperor, Selassie stated that he wished to abolish slavery and corruption, centralize Ethiopia’s tax system, establish a national army and build schools and hospitals (Lee 2020:112–122).

The Rastafari movement begins in Jamaica

The inauguration in 1930 of Selassie as Emperor in Ethiopia was seen by several activist preachers in Jamaica as a sign that a new saviour had arrived. Four of them were the main contributors to the ideology of the Rastafari movement: Archibald Dunkley, Joseph Hibbert, Leonard Howell and Robert Hinds. Leonard Percival Howell (1898–1981), whose deputy was Hinds, was the person most significant in shaping Rastafari ideology. Three of his books were very influential: The Holy Piby (‘The Blackman’s Bible’) (1924), The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy (1926), and The Promised Key (1935), which were steeped in ‘Ethiopianism’ and mentioned Marcus Garvey as the redeeming Apostle of God. However, Garvey refused Howell a platform at a UNIA meeting in Jamaica to speak about the divinity of Selassie, and railed against new religious cults, including Rastafari (Hill 2001:23–25).

Howell, who began widely preaching the Rastafari doctrine in 1933, introduced the new movement to gāñjā (also known as kālī, a ferocious Indian goddess) and fused Indian spirituality with some of the ritual practices of the Afro-Caribbean slave religion of Kumina (also known as Pocomania in Jamaica), which included singing, dancing and the use of drums and gāñjā. Rasta prayers contain Hindi, Bengali and Urdu words, probably introduced by Laloo, Howell’s Indian bodyguard (Hill 2001:41). Howell called himself G. G. (‘Gangunguru’) Muragh, deriving from the Hindi gyān guṇ (‘quality of knowledge’) guru and Muragh (an Indian royal title) (Tafari 2001:4–6). He did not acknowledge the authority of white people to collect taxes, challenged the monarchy, and was arrested several times by the authorities for sedition. In 1940 he claimed to be the returned Messiah.

Through his organization, the Ethiopian Salvation Society, Howell started the Pinnacle community in Saint Catherine Parish in the Jamaican mountains in 1941. This was after being released from Bellevue Mental Hospital in 1938. In the 1940s and 1950s the community had a population of between around 500 to 1,600. They were self-sufficient in food and also grew gāñjā, the sale of which led to numerous busts by the police, who finally broke up the community in 1954.

Rastafari ideology

The Rastafari ideology that first emerged in the early 1930s included several basic tenets: Selassie is God on Earth; black people are the reincarnation of the ancient Israelites, who, at the hands of white people, were exiled to Jamaica (just like the Israelites were exiled to Babylon); Jamaican politics are very bad and a better life would be in Ethiopia; Selassie will arrange repatriation; black people are superior to white people and will rule the earth after a holocaust. There are four Messiahs: Moses, Elijah, Jesus Christ and Ras Tafari (Lee 2020:216). In this ideology, western materialism is termed Babylon, which was responsible for the slave trade, and which is contrasted with the spiritual ideology of the followers of Rastafari, the ‘Israelites’. ‘Signs’ and the verification of events were thought to be evident in various prophetic passages in the Bible, particularly in the Book of Revelations.

Selassie was sympathetic to the Rasta cause and donated 500 acres of land to them in Ethiopia, but when he visited Jamaica in 1966 he made it clear that he did not consider himself the new Messiah. Greeted by tens of thousands of cheering, dreadlocked Rastas at the airport, he retreated back inside the plane for an hour. He said people should not seek repatriation to Ethiopia: “Liberation before repatriation!” was the message. This event marked the end of the dream of repatriation held by many Rastas (Lee 2020:186–189).

Overall, the Rastafari movement of the 1930s and 1940s combined black religious nationalism with the general revival of folk religion at the time, which was permeated with ideas of the power of ‘magic’, and also with Jamaican peasant resistance to the plantation economy of the state (Hill 2001:46). By 1960, around 65% of the population of Jamaica were sympathisers or followers of Rastafari (Hamid 2002:77).

Rastafari lifestyle and beliefs

Among the beliefs held by Rastas, diet is important. No poultry, pork or shellfish should be eaten; sugar and salt should be avoided, as should all meat generally, and fish with scales or over a foot long. Also not permitted are soda, alcohol, tea, coffee, or any other drug. In contrast, gāñjā is revered as a plant sanctioned by God in the Bible. Gāñjā is the key to understanding the divinity within, of oneself as a part of God (the monophysite view referred to previously); it brings healing and revelation. Illness should be treated with natural plants and herbs, rather than chemicals. Dreadlocks should be worn, as is the custom among many Indian sādhus (renunciates).

Rastas are socially conservative: women are required to be modest in dress, not showing their legs or wearing trousers, and should keep their hair covered; they should be under male authority and gāñjā should be smoked privately; gay relationships are not approved of. Contraception and abortion are not permitted, as family life and children are very important. Most Rastas reject surgery, blood transfusions and medical injections.

Rastas hold regular meetings (known as ‘groundings’ and ‘groundations’), when communal discussions (‘reasonings’), drumming and gāñjā smoking take place. Their flag has the same colours as the national flag of Ethiopia, red symbolizing bloodshed, green for life and gāñjā; and gold being the wisdom of Jah (= Jehovah = God). It is believed that Jesus was a black African. Numerous Rasta words permeate their language, in particular the notion of ‘I and I’, whereby divinity and the individual self are as ‘one’. At the end of time all Rastas will meet in Zion.

There is no central authority for Rastas, and several sects (known as ‘mansions’) co-exist, each with varying emphases on the role of women in their society, and each having particular customs and beliefs, such as about Selassie. However, they all reject ancestor worship and believe we should love God and our neighbour.

Global Rastafari

The global influence of Rasta-infused reggae music, particularly by Bob Marley, which first erupted in the late 1960s, propelled Rastafari into the international arena, with Rasta followers and communities emerging on all continents. It is estimated that there are currently between 700,000 and a million Rastas in the world (Wikipedia:3).

The Rastafari movement has been significant in the global propagation of several important ideas. Rastas were pioneers of environmentalism and ‘natural’ life, emphasising the vital importance of a natural diet; they raised awareness of black culture and the history of slavery and oppression, and highlighted the spiritual dimension of smoking gāñjā.


Bandopadhyay, Saptarishi (2015). ‘The Decriminalization of Marijuana in Jamaica: A Key Step toward International Legalization?’ Harvard Law School, The Case Studies, pp.1–11. Harvard: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Comitas, Lambros (1975). ‘The Social Nexus of Ganja in Jamaica’. In Vera Rubin (ed.), Cannabis and Culture, pp. 119–132. The Hague/Paris: Mouton Publishers.

Hamid, Ansley (2002). The Ganja Complex: Rastafari and Marijuana. Oxford, UK/Lanham, Maryland, USA: Lexington Books.

Hill, Robert A. (2001). Dread History: Leonard P. Howell and Millenarian Visions in the Early Rastafarian Religion. Chicago/Kingston, Jamaica: Research Associates School Times Publications/Frontline Distribution Int’l Inc./Miguel Lorne Publishers.

Lee, Virginia (2020). Roots of Rastafari. UK: Amazon.

van Solinge, Tim Boekhout (trans. Jeanette Roberts) (1996). ‘Ganja in Jamaica’. Amsterdams Drug Tijdschrift, no. 2 (January), pp. 11–14.

Rubin, Vera (1975). ‘The Ganja Vision in Jamaica’. In Vera Rubin (ed.), Cannabis and Culture, pp. 257–266. The Hague/Paris: Mouton Publishers.

Tafari, Ras Sekou Sankara (2001). ‘Introduction’ to Hill (2001), pp. 3–10.

Wikipedia (2021).’Rastafari’.

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Matthew Clark

Since 2004, Dr. Matthew Clark has been a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), where he taught courses on Hinduism between 1999 and 2004. He has spent many years in India, which he first visited in 1977, visiting nearly all important (several hundred) pilgrimage sites and trekking around 2,000 miles in the Himalayas. He first engaged with yoga in the mid-1970s and began regularly practicing Ashtanga Yoga in 1990. Since 2006 has been lecturing worldwide on yoga, philosophy, and psychedelics. He is one of the editors of the Journal of Yoga Studies and is one of the administrators of the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. His publications include The Daśanāmī-Saṃnyāsīs: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order (2006), which is a study of a sect of sādhus; an exploration of the use of psychedelic plant concoctions in ancient Asia and Greece, The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma, and Ayahuasca (2017); and a short book on yoga, The Origins and Practices of Yoga: A Weeny Introduction (revised edition) (2018).