Cannabis Around the World: the History and Culture of Ganja in Jamaica

Jamaica is known internationally for its associations with cannabis. Yet, most people still have a muddled view of the history and culture of ganja in Jamaica.

Stumbling into sensationalism and exoticization when talking about cannabis cultures worldwide is easy. Hopefully, these factoids about the cannabis culture of Jamaica will help you have a clearer view of how things go down in this gorgeous island country.

Indian Origins

Image by: Edwin Binney 3rd Collection

Ganja is the preferred name for cannabis in this island nation of 3 million people. In Jamaica, cannabis enjoys a reputation as a cultural phenomenon, religious sacrament and tourist attraction. Many people assume the word “ganja” originated in Jamaica — it actually comes from Indian indentured servants who were forcibly brought to Jamaica by the British to work in sugar plantations. Indeed, many cite India as one of the oldest civilizations to dabble in doobies.

Specifically, this cultural and product exchange goes back to approximately 1845; Workers brought their plants with them along with their knowledge of how to cultivate and use them. Today, many terms that enjoy continued use in Jamaica surrounding cannabis have their origins from this over a hundred-year-old cultural exchange.

Ganja for the Masses?

Photo by: Rock Staar

One of the prevailing myths about the history and culture of ganja in Jamaica is the idea that smoking is widespread throughout the island and that there is close to no stigmatization.

Even as much as everyone thinks that everyone smokes herb in Jamaica, not everyone does. There are definitely people who look down upon it.  

Bambaata Marley

However, cannabis use is indeed part of the daily lives of many groups. In fact, researchers have noted the prevalence of cannabis use in two main groups: the working class and Rastafarians.

Working Class Roots

In his essay “The Social Nexus of Ganja in Jamaica“, Anthropologist Lambros Comitas notes that working-class individuals, particularly, are involved with cannabis. By comparison, middle-class and upper-class people are more likely to shun cannabis and look down on users. Through friend circles and by watching family members, most people become keenly aware of cannabis use and treat it as a part of social life and daily life.

Generally, ganja is either consumed as part of a tea or smoked. Aside from a belief that cannabis has great medicinal properties, one possible explanation for the proclivity of the working class towards ganja is their perception of its ability to increase work capacity. Yes, you read that right — the exact opposite of what most Westerners think of cannabis.

Almost universally, users maintain that ganja enhances their ability to work. That is, to perform manual labour, and they regularly consume ganja with this objective.

Lambros Comitas

This focus on class is necessary. As Comitas notes that “The social factor is vital to the understanding of cannabis in Jamaica.”

According to Comitas, others view cannabis use as a marker of class. In that way, cannabis use can bring out marginalization and stigmatization. Although, that’s not so much the case in countries like Canada, where legalization has done a small part in helping combat stigma.

Demystifying Rastafari

Photo by: Ueli Frey

Most people probably heard about the Rastafari religion and culture by listening to Bob Marley, arguably one of the most prominent Rastafarians who was also instrumental in increasing the popularity of both the religion and plant. First thing’s first: what is Rastafari? It is a religious movement for Black Jamaicans that believes in the eventual and worldwide redemption of Black people through the hands of a Black Messiah, bringing about a return to Africa.

The Role of Communes

Many early practitioners of Rastafari lived in communes to avoid persecution from broader society. In these communes, they grew cash crops to become self-sustaining. One of these cash crops was — you guessed it: ganja. Rastas value the plant as a sacrament and use it for religious rituals and as an entheogen. One of the sacred and purposeful uses for ganja in Rastafari culture is for Nyabinghi, also known as reasoning sessions. Nyabinghi involves playing music, where devotees can sing, chant and pray together. Discussing communal issues and smoking ganja to produce heightened spiritual states is common. Then, they participate in debates on the religion’s principles and discuss its ideas relevant to current affairs.

Rastafarians have a long history of standing up to The Man and advocating for freedom. However, this has also made this minority community (about 1-2 percent of the island’s population) a target of institutions and systems. Many Rastas also perceive the near-universal ban on cannabis as persecution, as it infringes on their right to practice their beliefs.

One common myth about Rastafarians is that they use ganja just to get high. The truth is that many devout practitioners likely frown on this idea. They do not simply think of the plant as a provider of leisure; they even draw from the Christian Bible to explain their connections to cannabis:

  • Genesis 3:18 – “…thou shalt eat the herb of the field.”
  • Exodus 10:12 – “…eat every herb of the land.”
  • Proverbs 15:17 – “… Better is a dinner of herb where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.”
  • Psalms 104:14 – “…He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man.”
Photo by: Cannabis Pictures

Despite its reputation as a paradise for potheads, cannabis is actually mostly illegal in Jamaica. Prohibition against cannabis began in the early 1900s with the 1913 Ganja Law. First proposed by a group of Evangelical churches with the highly vocal support of European elites, the law is now seen by many as a racist and classist law that discriminated against the working class and Black people.

Thankfully, things have improved. The government proposed a series of reforms, which came into effect in 2015, reducing possession of small quantities to a petty offence and allowing citizens to grow their own plants. It is also legal for Rastafarians to use the plant, with Jamaica being one of the only countries in the world to allow the use of cannabis for religious purposes.

Recently, the Jamaican government has undertaken efforts to bring all of Jamaica’s cannabis farmers into its blossoming, but still small, formal industry. These efforts mark one of the first concerted efforts from the government to capitalize on the local cannabis culture to make the country a major player in the global cannabis economy. However, many small farmers, especially those from the Rastafarian community, have concerns about their ability to penetrate the legal market without sufficient government support.

Roots, Rock, Reggae, Reefer

The history and culture of ganja in Jamaica intertwine with complex narratives of racial justice, trans-continental cultural exchange, classism and oppression. Considering this nuanced reality, it is unsurprising that many harbour misconceptions about Jamaica’s cannabis culture.

Jamaica is a beautiful island with a deeply complex and interesting local culture. And now that global travel is gearing up again, you may want to consider it as a top choice for cannabis tourism. If you end up going, get your hands on some of that sweet ganja. Don’t forget to follow CLN and let us know what it’s like to smoke up in paradise!