Gruge styled hand-drawn ganja leaf on rastafari colored flag. Vector illustration

Cannabis in Jamaica: myth vs. reality

Many tourists associate Jamaica with cannabis. Whether through the many pictures of Bob Marley that exist with him smoking a joint or Peter Tosh’s song Legalize It, for many, when you say you’ve visited Jamaica, chances are pretty good they’ll ask how much weed you smoked.

Cannabis in Jamaica isn’t totally legal

It may be surprising to learn that the Jamaican government didn’t decriminalize marijuana until 2015 and that legislation has limits. Under Jamaica’s decriminalization program, cannabis for scientific, therapeutic, or medical use is legal for licensed businesses or patients with a doctor’s note. If you’re visiting Jamaica, you can use your medical marijuana card.

Before Jamaica’s decriminalization legislation passed in 2015, the Jamaican government’s attitude towards cannabis was hostile. When the Coral Gardens massacre of 1963 happened, the government went on an anti-Rasta rampage, jailing over 400 people.

Rastafarians refer to the Coral Gardens massacre as Black Friday. After that day, the government institutionalized mandatory minimum sentences for possession. The minimum penalty for possession of as little as two ounces, and anyone caught growing or dealing cannabis could receive a minimum of five years.

Unfortunately, the government used cannabis has been used as a tool to dehumanize and incarcerate Rastafarians. Authorities have subject Rastas to having their dreads cut off in jail or even in the middle of the street. Rastas treat cannabis as a spiritual tool, referring to marijuana as wisdom week.

Cannabis is a sacrament, and smoking is a religious rite. Rastas consider marijuana a sacred plant because it’s said to have grown on the grave of King Solomon.

cannabis in Jamaica
Marijuana plants at outdoor – cannabis farm field

Current Situation of Cannabis in Jamaica

While many Jamaicans smoke cannabis, others look down on those who smoke it and resent that Jamaica’s reputation in many parts of the world comes from the idea that all Jamaicans smoke cannabis.

The Cannabis Licensing Authority set a goal to issue the 100th license before the end of the 2020/2021 fiscal year. As of August 2020, there were 67 licenses issued to local companies and individuals and 21 applications at the “license granted” stage. Typically, the license application takes six months to process.

Jamaica’s current decriminalization rules allow Jamaican’s to cultivate up to five plants. Rastas are permitted to use cannabis for religious purposes.

The goal of decriminalization wasn’t to create a free-for-all for those growing, dealing, exporting, or growing marijuana. Jamaica’s security forces continue to rigorously enforce Jamaica’s laws in a way that is consistent with international treaty obligations.

You can still be subject to a fine

Decriminalization of cannabis in Jamaica doesn’t mean that you can’t get penalized for possession. If authorities catch you with two ounces of cannabis, you can still be subject to a fine of $500 Jamaican (approximately $3 US). Decriminalization means that you don’t face a criminal record for possession.

If authorities find you possessing cannabis and you’re under the age of 18, they may refer you to the National Council of Drug Abuse for counselling.

Possession of larger amounts of cannabis is still a criminal offence. Authorities won’t issue fines to those with a medical marijuana note or possess products purchased at a licensed dispensary.

Smoking weed is treated the same as cigarettes and isn’t permitted in public. The fine for smoking in public is $500 Jamaican. It’s legal to smoke in special rooms designated in dispensaries, and you’re allowed to smoke in your private residence, which was once an offence.

Final thoughts

Jamaica is known for growing some excellent cannabis. The good news is that you can enjoy local marijuana without any worries about going to jail. The key is to stick within the two-ounce limit and purchase your cannabis from a local dispensary.