MJ News for 03/20/2015


Jul 25, 2008
Reaction score

Obama's Poll-Following Marijuana Metamorphosis

In an interview with Vice News this week, President Obama suggested that removing marijuana from the list of federally prohibited substances would represent “progress.” At the same time, he made it clear he’s in no hurry to see that happen. “Young people,” he said, “I understand this is important to you. But, you know, you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace. Maybe, way at the bottom, you should be thinking about marijuana.”

This sort of condescension is by now a familiar feature of Obama’s responses to questions about marijuana legalization. It glosses over the reality of pot prohibition, which entails arresting 700,000 or so people every year in the United States, or one every 45 seconds. Although those people generally do not spend much time behind bars, they still experience the indignity, cost, and inconvenience of being treated like criminals, and they may face life-altering consequences. That is surely true of the 40,000 people in prison for growing or distributing marijuana, who could be forgiven for wanting to change this unjust policy before we manage to lick global warming.

Although addressing the pointless pain caused by pot prohibition may not be high on Obama’s list of priorities, he has intermittently recognized it as a serious issue. A review of Obama’s statements about marijuana during the last decade or so suggests that, as with gay marriage, he has often felt a political need to conceal his true beliefs, becoming more comfortable about voicing them as public opinion has shifted in his direction. Expecting Obama to lead on this issue is plainly unrealistic, but he seems willing to follow.

When Obama was running for the U.S. Senate in 2004, he participated in a forum at Northwestern University where someone asked him about his position on drug legalization. “I think the…war on drugs has been an utter failure,” he said, “and I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws, but I’m not somebody who believes in legalization of marijuana.”

While decriminalize is an ambiguous term, in the context of American drug policy it has generally meant replacing criminal penalties for simple possession with civil fines. That seems to be what Obama had in mind when he said we should “decriminalize our marijuana laws” without fully legalizing the drug—a position that was not very controversial at the time. According to a 2002 CNN poll, three-quarters of Americans agreed that people caught with small amounts of marijuana should not go to jail.

Yet as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama seemed to worry that his position on marijuana decriminalization might be misconstrued. During an October 2007 debate at Drexel University in Philadelphia, moderator Tim Russert noted that Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) had recently voiced support for decriminalizing marijuana. “Is there anyone here,” Russert asked the candidates, “who disagrees with Sen. Dodd in decriminalizing marijuana?” Obama put his left hand halfway up, as if he were at that very moment weighing the pros and cons of opposing decriminalization.

A few months later, The Washington Times asked the Obama campaign to explain his apparent disagreement with Dodd:

When asked by The Times about decriminalizing marijuana, the Obama campaign reiterated the candidate’s opposition to legalization. “Senator Obama does not believe in legalization of marijuana, but agrees with President Bush that long minimum sentences for first-time drug users may not be the best way to occupy jail space or heal people from their disease,” Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

The campaign went on to say that, as president, Mr. Obama “will review drug sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive sentencing of non-violent offenders, and revisit instances where drug rehabilitation may be more appropriate.” His campaign later stated that Mr. Obama “always” has supported decriminalizing marijuana.

At first the Obama campaign obfuscated the issue, referring to “long minimum sentences for first-time drug users,” a red herring with reference to cannabis consumers. At the time the only mandatory minimum for simple possession under federal law was a five-year sentence for crack cocaine. But Obama’s spokesman also said the candidate continued to support marijuana decriminalization.

That lasted about a week. In February 2008, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) reported that “Senator Barack Obama’s campaign backed away from statements made last week affirming the Senator’s support for decriminalizing marijuana.” NORML added that “a spokesman for Obama’s campaign blamed confusion over the meaning of decriminalization for the inconsistencies.”

It was not clear whether Obama was confused or merely worried that voters would be. Nor was it clear whether he had actually changed his stance and now thought that marijuana users should be arrested.

Obama was not eager to clarify his position after he was elected president. Instead he literally laughed at questions about marijuana legalization. At a March 2009 “town hall meeting” featuring questions submitted online, a grinning Obama made it clear that people who oppose pot prohibition should not be taken seriously:

There was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high, and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation. And I don’t know what this says about the online audience, but…this was a popular question. We want to make sure it’s answered. The answer is no, I don’t think that’s a good strategy to grow our economy. All right.

Obama also treated the subject of drug legalization as a laughing matter at a January 2011 forum in which people posed questions via YouTube. He sobered up a bit after watching a video in which MacKenzie Allen of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition asked him about ending the war on drugs. “I think this is an entirely legitimate topic for debate,” Obama said. “I am not in favor of legalization. I am a strong believer that we need to think more about drugs as a public health problem.” Obama’s concession that legalization was a legitimate (though hilarious) topic for debate sat rather uneasily with his drug czar’s declaration that “legalization is not in the president’s vocabulary.”

Obama’s marijuana-induced giggles were especially irritating in light of his youthful pot smoking, which could have forestalled his political career if he had been caught. As Andrew Sullivan put it in his book The Cannabis Closet, “How does a society treat something as a harmless, ubiquitous joke and then arrest hundreds of thousands of people a year for doing it?”

During a July 2011 Q&A session at the University of Maryland, Obama again advocated a “public health” approach to drug abuse but explicitly rejected a policy like the one adopted by Portugal, which eliminated criminal penalties for users in 2001. “Am I willing to pursue a decriminalization strategy as an approach?” he said. “No.”

After he was safely re-elected, Obama began speaking more candidly about marijuana, most famously in a January 2014 interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick. Obama acknowledged that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, casting doubt on the rationality of the distinctions drawn by our drug laws. He also noted the racially disproportionate impact of marijuana prohibition.

“Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” Obama told Remnick. “African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.” Regarding the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington (which the Justice Department already had said it would not challenge), Obama had this to say: “It’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”

In other words, just two and a half years after he had rejected decriminalization of marijuana use, Obama signaled an openness to full legalization. By that point polls were showing that most Americans favored legalization, which got more votes in Colorado than Obama did. And far from going out on a limb by saying marijuana is safer than alcohol, he was merely agreeing with an opinion held by a large majority of Americans.

Talking to CNN’s Jake Tapper shortly after his interview with The New Yorker, Obama sounded ambivalent about legalization. He said “the incarceration model that we’ve taken, particularly around marijuana, does not seem to have produced the kinds of results that we’ve set.” But he also worried that when “big corporations with a lot of resources and distribution and marketing arms are suddenly going out there peddling marijuana…the levels of abuse that may take place are going to be higher.”

Despite his misgivings, Obama this week suggested that state-level legalization eventually will lead Congress to repeal the federal ban. “We may actually be able to make some progress on the decriminalization side,” he said. “At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, Congress may then reschedule marijuana.”

Presumably Obama meant Congress will deschedule marijuana (i.e., remove it from the list of “controlled substances”), since otherwise recreational use would remain illegal. But as his reference to decriminalization in this context reflects, Obama’s use of drug-policy terminology is pretty sloppy, or maybe just slippery. A few years ago, he eschewed decriminalization, apparently because he worried that the word would scare people. Now he uses it as a reassuring synonym for full legalization. That suggests how far public opinion has moved and how careful Obama is not to get ahead of it.


Jul 25, 2008
Reaction score

(Georgia) Medical marijuana bill passes Senate committee

ATLANTA -- A Georgia Senate committee passed a medical marijuana bill on Thursday, but hurdles remain before it can become law.

The bill is similar to a House bill that passed weeks ago.

Addiction specialists took turns telling the Senate committee why legalizing medical marijuana could have consequences.

"If we increase the supply of THC in Georgia it will absolutely, positively find its way into the hands of abusers," said Dr. Paul Early.

The Senate had taken a very narrow approach to medical marijuana but the new Senate bill presented at Thursday's hearing mimics the much broader House bill – and the parents of patients say they are grateful.

Vince Sievert's daughter has epilepsy and is using medical marijuana in Colorado.

"She has gone as long as 26 days seizure-free from medical cannabis," Sievert told the committee.

Supporters of the measure are hopeful that the Senate and House bills will be combined and pass both chambers.

There has been some speculation that a medical marijuana bill could merge with an autism bill that has stalled in the House. That would require insurance to cover autism treatment. Last year, the combined medical marijuana/autism bill stalled.


Jul 25, 2008
Reaction score

Meet the man trying to halt marijuana legalization

Kevin Sabet has become synonymous with the opposition to marijuana legalization in the US. As a former drug policy adviser to the White House and co-founder, with Patrick Kennedy, of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), Sabet has long acted as a major counterpoint to pro-legalization groups like the Marijuana Policy Project and Drug Policy Alliance.

But it's been a rough battle for Sabet and SAM in recent years. Since 2012, four states and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana by varying degrees, with Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon allowing retail sales and DC only permitting growing and gifting. The tide of victories appears set to continue: surveys show most Americans, particularly millennials, support legalization.

I talked with Sabet about his opposition to legal pot, why it doesn't prevent him from supporting decriminalization and more access to medical research, and whether he thinks legalization is inevitable.

The biggest concern with legalization is a company like Philip Morris marketing marijuana

German Lopez: If you had to explain to someone who knows little about drug policy what your biggest problem is with marijuana legalization, what would you tell him?

Kevin Sabet: My biggest concern is creating Big Marijuana — sort of like Big Tobacco, which we're still dealing with the consequences of.

If we were a country with a history of being able to promote moderation in our consumer use of products, or promote responsible corporate advertising or no advertising, or if we had a history of being able to take taxes gained from a vice and redirect them into some positive areas, I might be less concerned about what I see happening in this country. But I think we have a horrible history of dealing with these kinds of things.

The only reason a few of those products happen to be legal now, like alcohol and tobacco, is because of their cultural place in history. Alcohol, for example, dates back to before the Old Testament in terms of widespread use in Western culture.

Yes, marijuana has been used in Western and other cultures for a very long time. I always get emails when this sort of thing is printed, pointing out that Chinese culture used marijuana a lot 3,000 years ago.

But in terms of widespread use by the vast majority of the population, that is alcohol and, in the past century or two, tobacco. So we're sort of stuck with those things. And I don't think adding a third substance to be promoted by Madison Avenue is something that we want to do.

German Lopez:Every drug policy expert I've talked to is worried about the commercialization of any drug, including marijuana. But if that's your biggest concern, is there any sort of legalization model you could see yourself supporting? If you could sit down leading drug experts in a room to set up a legalization model in which states run dispensaries or only gifting and growing is allowed, is that something you could back?

Kevin Sabet: Listen, if drug policy academics had a history of successfully transferring their theories and getting them adopted in governments, we might be having a different conversation. But I think Mark Kleiman, Jon Caulkins, and others in the field would be the first to tell you how frustrating it is to get their ideas heard by policymakers.

The reality is there are myriad other forces at work here. Chief among them are the very powerful forces of greed and profit. When I look at how things are set up in states like Colorado, where the marijuana industry gets a seat at the table for every state decision on marijuana policy, it troubles me.

Keeping marijuana illegal doesn't mean it needs to be criminal

German Lopez: Do you think more states should take up marijuana decriminalization?

Kevin Sabet: I absolutely think we should remove criminal penalties for use. I absolutely think we should not be penalizing someone with an arrest record so they can't get job.

But I don't like the term decriminalization, because it's used interchangeably with legalization — even sometimes by the president and often by the media. But I haven't been able to come up with a better word. Maybe some other people will.

A lot of drug policy can be better explained when we actually describe the policies versus putting a label on them. Sometimes putting the label on something means that two people who agree on something end up disagreeing. I've seen that with a term like "harm reduction," which is terribly defined but can put people in conflict even when they agree with 80 percent of the policies.

German Lopez: Whenever I write about decriminalization, I get a lot of emails asking me about the other costs of marijuana prohibition: how drug trafficking essentially funds violent criminal organizations, and the general costs to taxpayers for fighting the war on drugs. How do you address those issues without legalization?

Kevin Sabet: Every drug policy has costs and benefits. Every drug policy has consequences we don't like and issues we hope won't come to pass. Prohibition has that. Decriminalization has that. Legalization has that.

The trick is figuring out which one you, as a society or an individual, are happy with, which trade-off you can live with.

In my mind, I'm okay, frankly, with a relatively nonviolent underground market, which is what the marijuana market is — most people get marijuana from a friend or grow their own, so it's very different from the other drug markets.

I am more comfortable with 8 percent of Americans using marijuana (although I'd like to reduce that) from an underground market than I am with 55 percent of Americans using marijuana, half of which is from a legal market with companies like Philip Morris and half of which is still from an underground market. Either way, you're still going to have an underground market with legalization, just like you do in Colorado now.

The only reason we don't have the underground market with alcohol is that alcohol has always been legal except for the decade of Prohibition. There really never was a robust underground market for alcohol like there is for all the illegal drugs now.

When you look at cigarettes, there wasn't an underground market until we started taxing it really highly. And now there's a very robust underground market for cigarettes — something like 50 percent of the cigarettes consumed in the Bronx are from a quasi-illegal source.

The underground market happens even under our best models in which we say we'll tax it highly to pay for the problems. Even under legalization, there's a black market.

There will always be pros and cons. I just think it's much worse for us to increase the percentage of people who are abusing and heavily using marijuana, which will happen under legalization, especially with widespread promotion.

German Lopez: I think most people would agree that the underground marijuana market isn't going to go away immediately. But it seems to me that it would go away over time as the legal market takes hold. Do you disagree?

Kevin Sabet: I think if the government keeps the price low, you can imagine in four or five generations, or three or four generations maybe, the underground market would be substantially reduced. But then that means you're making the barrier of entry into abusing marijuana really, really low, because you're making it cheap.

I just don't know how society benefits from more people who are stoned. We use fancy terminology and all sorts of statistics, but at the end of the day people should look at it simply. Do people really think their relationships are enhanced when they have friends who are stoned all the time? Do they think their neighborhoods are enhanced by having marijuana stores near schools? Do they think their kids' lives are enhanced when they're exposed to the advertisements of marijuana candies and lollipops?

You have to really think about the kind of society we have to make. Do we think our workforce is enhanced, our competitiveness is enhanced, if we have higher rates of marijuana use? I don't think so. I don't see why we would benefit from being a society that promotes the use of a drug that, at the end of the day, makes you unmotivated.

Opposition to legalization doesn't mean opposition to medical use

German Lopez:You've talked in the past about making it easier for researchers and patients to access medical marijuana. What kind of things do you think should be done to accomplish that?

Kevin Sabet: Like I've always said, we don't need to smoke opium to get the effects of morphine. Similarly, we shouldn't have to smoke marijuana to get its potential medical effects.

There are clearly some medical benefits for some people from the components in marijuana — in isolation or sometimes when taken together. The question is how we deliver that in the safest way, where there's a lower potential for abuse.

I think we need to do more research to answer that question. One way I would do that is for the government to fund research on this. Private industry is what funds a lot of our biomedical research, but private industry isn't slamming on the doors of Congress to get marijuana rescheduled. But I would still say that the government could fund and incentivize researchers. We could get the Drug Enforcement Administration to relax some of the rules to get access to marijuana.

If all the parents who want to get their children CBD [a non-psychoactive marijuana component with some medical properties] acknowledged the potential long-term risks of it and signed on the dotted line agreeing to the risk, I would get them standardized CBD medicine, and sign them up for a National Institutes of Health trial tomorrow. I think we need to move towards that.

Is legalization inevitable?

German Lopez: Advocates largely see legalization as inevitable, polls show strong support for legalization, and more states are legalizing marijuana. As someone who's trying to stop this, how do you view that?

Kevin Sabet: Inevitability is the number-one talking point of the legalization movement. They've even started an organization with the sole purpose of distorting people's perceptions of this and making it seem like everyone supports legalization, whether it is really true or not. That's a really powerful talking point for them, because if people think something is inevitable, even if they're against it, they're likely to surrender it because it's not worth their time to deal with it or fight.

There's no doubt that there's some truth to the momentum for legalization that has grown in the past 10 years or so.

Should Marijuana Be Illegal?(graph)

But I think what goes up must also come down. I think these things come in cycles. In the 1970s, we had the exact same thing happen with support for legalization. Maybe not as much as we have now, but we did see a dramatic change from the 1950s to the 1970s — in the same way you've seen a change from the 1990s to the 2010s. And that reversed for all sorts of reasons after the 1970s. It might reverse this time, but it might not.

The reason we formed SAM with the support of many medical organizations is to get the evidence out there on marijuana's problems with mental illness, school performance, etc. And we want to warn the American people against promoting this new tobacco-like industry. That's going to be relevant whether 40 states legalize next year or not. We're going to keep talking about this.

At the end of the day, I think the best way to stop Big Marijuana is to stop legalization entirely — and that is absolutely the goal that I have. But also, we don't feel like if we lose a couple states it's time to pack up and go home. We have a long view on this.

German Lopez: There are groups that fight Big Tobacco to this day. Do you see SAM filling that role if legalization spreads?

Kevin Sabet: There are all sorts of models, absolutely, that could work to stop Big Marijuana.

But, again, I do think these things come in cycles. Unlike alcohol and tobacco, the vast majority of people don't use marijuana. If marijuana is legalized in an environment in which the vast majority of people don't use it, I think there's always a chance for reversal.

Alcohol is not going to be prohibited now, because so many people drink regularly and it's been in our culture forever. Tobacco use is close to being eliminated in the US, but it's still around abroad. Whereas with marijuana, you don't have this global use that you do with alcohol and tobacco.

There's a very good chance that this is cyclical and this movement could be reversed. Again, the legalizers want people to think that if this doesn't get reversed in a year, it's time to pack up and go home.


Jul 25, 2008
Reaction score

Nashville GOP senator to propose medical marijuana bill

A Nashville Republican senator is working on legislation that will, to some degree, suggest changing Tennessee law to allow marijuana for medicinal usage.

Sen. Steve Dickerson, who is also an anesthesiologist, confirmed Thursday he's working on the legislation with Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville.

"We want to make sure that it's medical appropriate, substantiated, and that it answers the real needs of Tennesseans," Dickerson said.

Dickerson said the details won't be finalized until Monday, but the goal is to provide some relief to people suffering from conditions that might be alleviated through the use of medical marijuana. He said he thinks the bill will be "limited," but at the same time he hopes to make it "as inclusive as possible."

In the past, Democrats have tried and failed to pass medical marijuana legislation. Nashville Democratic Rep. Sherry Jones has introduced the legislation again this year, along with Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, but it has yet to make it out of committee.

There is a GOP effort to legalize cannabis oil for limited medical uses, and another House committee approved a bill Wednesday that would allow children suffering from seizures to use the oil for medicinal purposes.

Stressing the details aren't finalized, Dickerson said the plan could go further than the cannabis oil bill. Despite previous opposition over questions of abuse or federal law, Dickerson thinks a national shift in opinion along with his standing as a Republican and being a doctor helps lend credibility and political muscle to any medical marijuana push.

"I do believe that the nature of the conversation has changed over the last several years," Dickerson said, noting 23 states and Washington, D.C., allow medical marijuana, and 13 more are considering adopting the law.

"It's really the whole environment has changed, No. 1. Number two, I think it also just comes down to the fact that in the majority party, it might be easier to get a bill through than if you're in the minority party."

Several lawmakers, mainly Democrats, noted during discussions of the cannabis oil bill that they wished it would allow more people to use the oil. But legislative leadership has been hesitant to support a wider push on legalization for medicinal use.

Gov. Bill Haslam has opposed any broad medical marijuana legislation in the past, and he recently repeated the same concerns.

"I think there's a difference cannabis oil and medical marijuana, and I think our department has some real concerns on the medical marijuana versus the cannabis oil," he said, according to The Nashville Post.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said if any cannabis oil or medical marijuana legislation were pushed in the General Assembly five years ago it "wouldn't (have) had a prayer." Like Dickerson though, he thinks opinions in Tennessee and nationwide are changing.

"The cannabis oil bill, I'm fine with that. Steve Dickerson is a medical doctor, I trust his opinion on this kind of stuff, he knows much more about it than I do. And I'm sure he's not for the complete legalization of marijuana, so if he can sell something else to me to take it to the next step, then we'll do that," Ramsey said.

In a non-scientific survey recently released by House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, 64 percent of respondents said they favored legalizing marijuana for medicinal usage. Harwell said she thinks there could be support for the cannabis oil bill, but "I don't think this state is ready for a broad piece of legislation."

Although the deadline to file bills has passed, lawmakers can use what they call "caption bills" to push for seemingly new legislation late in session. The caption bill addresses some part of Tennessee law that relates to the topic in question — in this case, marijuana law. Lawmakers can then call for an amendment to that caption bill that can significantly change the purpose of the bill.

Dickerson said he and Williams have a caption bill that they plan to use for the medical marijuana legislation.


Jul 25, 2008
Reaction score

What will the decriminalization of marijuana mean for Jamaica’s Rastafarians?

KINGSTON, Jamaica—Attend any outdoor sound system party in Kingston and you are guaranteed to experience at least two things: loud, bass-thumping reggae and dancehall blasting from a gigantic stack of speakers, and clouds of marijuana smoke rising over the crowd. Like peanuts at a baseball game, the two go hand-in-hand, and it’s been that way for almost five decades.

While not everyone at the party is smoking, marijuana is usually easy to come by if you’re looking. Just stop one of the vendors who will be periodically walking through the crowd with 12-inch stalks, selling buds from the dried plant for $100 Jamaican dollars ($1).

An estimated 37,000 acres of marijuana grow across the island of Jamaica, but perhaps surprisingly to Bob Marley–worshipping foreigners, selling and using marijuana here has been against the law for the past 67 years. Until very recently, being caught with any amount of marijuana could lead to arrest and up to five years of jail time and a hefty fine up to J$15,000 (roughly $1,500). Those with marijuana convictions can also have a hard time finding work or obtaining visas to travel abroad. The strict illegality of cannabis in a country where the plant grows wild has long been a controversial sore spot between the Jamaican government, the Constabulary Force (the island’s police organization), and many of the country’s citizens—particularly Rastafarians.

But now, Jamaica’s government, which has long had a fraught relationship with the ganja-smoking Rastas, is slowly embracing the plant’s use. A new amendment to Jamaica’s Dangerous Drugs Act, which was passed Feb. 6, Marley’s birthday, makes any possession under 2 ounces only a ticketed offense and allows any Rastafarian person to grow marijuana on designated lands. The amendment also permits the use of ganja for religious, medical, and scientific purposes. Smoking ganja is still prohibited in public places.

Rastafarians have welcomed the amendment, albeit with deep-rooted wariness.

“Give thanks for the decriminalization of herbs because we Rasta man go through a lot of struggle over it,” says Ras Ayatollah, sitting in the garden of the well-hidden restaurant of Ibo Spice on Orange Street in downtown Kingston that serves up a strictly vegetarian menu that Rastas called “ital.” A Rastafarian elder at the Scotts Pass Nyabinghi Center in Clarendon, about a 40-minute drive outside of Kingston, Ayatollah grew up a fisherman in the Kingston shanty community of Hannah Town. According to Ayatollah, he got his name after hearing a radio report that the Iranian Ayatollah had declared he would stop “wickedness and earthquakes.”

Marijuana first arrived in Jamaica with indentured workers from India (who called the plant “ganja,” the Bengali word for hemp and a term still widely used across the island) in the 19th century. The use of cannabis grew in popularity along with the rise of the radical, Afro-centric spiritual movement Rastafarianism in the 1930s. The movement, which originates in Jamaica, has roots in Abrahamic religious tradition but identifies former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie as a Jesus-like figure who represented God on Earth.

Followers see Zion (often identified as Ethiopia) as a promised land they’ve been forcefully taken away from by Babylon—which encompasses what they see as a wide-breadth of corrupt Anglo-Western values such materialism and greed. Cannabis, which Rastafarians often they refer to as “herb,” is a holy plant to believers, according to their interpretation of certain passages in the Old Testament. Many Rastas believe the plant grew on the grave of King Solomon.

The use of ganja was further promoted with the worldwide popularity of reggae in the 1970s. Many of its biggest stars—most notably Marley—adhered to tenents of the Rastafarian lifestyle and often sang about its sacred status along with the plant’s medicinal benefits. Peter Tosh’s anthem “Legalize It,” which was banned from airplay in Jamaica upon its 1975 release, is perhaps the most known example.

The hardline approach that the Jamaican government has taken toward ganja use and cultivation has naturally resulted in a long and strained relationship with Rastafarians. But the complexities run deeper than just ganja use. Like many elder Rastafarians, Ayatollah has endured decades of stigmatization by many Jamaicans and, in particular, the local police. Over the years, this has often played out in violence and aggravation.

One often-cited clash is the Coral Gardens incident, which took place in 1963. A number of Rastafarians took to the local police station near Montego Bay to protest police harassment over their presence near resort hotels. The situation turned violent, and eight Rastafarians were killed. The incident is still remembered each year on its anniversary by Rastafarians, who refer to it as “Bad Friday.”

Another famous incident in post-independence Jamaica revolves around the destruction of a downtown Rastafarian community that was called Back O’Wall in 1965. The area was a center for pan-Africanism and early Rastafarians; Marley lived here when he was young. After being branded by politicians as a slum and a center for violence, it was leveled by bulldozers and rifle-armed police officers. The area was replaced by low-income housing and renamed Tivoli Gardens, but it remained a hotspot for violence, epitomized by the government’s armed capture of Tivoli Gardens’ famed drug lord Christopher Coke in 2010, which resulted in more than 50 deaths, many of whom were unarmed residents.

These instances are among the reasons why Ayatollah remains skeptical about the government’s motives. But he’s hopeful that the Rastafarian community will see the benefits.

“At the end of the day, they should donate something to the Rastafari community in Jamaica for the struggles we endure,” Ayatollah says. “I know that in due season they will have to give back something to I and I.” (Many Rastafarians don’t say “me” or “I” but “I and I” in reference to their God, Jah, and themselves”—a mix of the Jamaican patois and the Rastafarians own spiritual use of language.)

Michael Barnett, a senior lecturer at the University of the West Indies and editor of Rastafari in the New Millennium, a collection of essays that examine the religion as a modern, worldwide movement, shares Ayatollah’s sentiments.

“The real issue that many of us in the Rastafari community have is if we are going to have a stake in the commercial industry,” Barnett says. “The commercial motivation by the government is quit obvious. But what regard is being paid to Rastafari? Shouldn't Rastafari be a part of any economic benefits that are to be incurred in this initiative?”

To be sure, there is money to be made from legal ganja. The new law opens the door for the creation of licenses for allowing the development of a medicinal and commercial ganja industry—something toward which the powerful and business-savvy Marley estate has already taken steps, creating its own strain of the plant called “Marley Natural” this past November.

The new law can only benefit tourism, Jamaica’s biggest revenue-generator. More than 2 million people visited Jamaica last year, many in search of sun, music, and marijuana in resort towns such as Negril. It’s also here where rogue “ganja tours” are already attractions that authorities have largely turned a blind eye to, despite their illegality, possibly in fear of scaring away visitors.

“The investment opportunities from legalizing ganja are huge,” argued Delano Seiveright, director of the lobby group Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Research Taskforce, at last year’s Investments and Capital Markets Conference in Jamaica. “The more obvious relate to the impact on our agriculture, tourism, and financial sectors.”

Upon passing the reform, Justice Minister Mark Golding echoed these sentiments, saying, “We need to position ourselves to take advantage of the significant economic opportunities offered by this emerging industry.”

Barnett doesn’t see why Rastafarians can’t also take advantage of these benefits.

“Rastafari should be able to make a living out of something they've long promoted and championed,” explains Barnett. “What may happen, and I hope it doesn’t, is that Rastafari will have no real part, or real input, in the commercial aspect of the herb industry.”

Barnett’s colleague Clinton Hutton, a lecturer in political philosophy and culture at University of the West Indies, has similar concerns. Speaking in his office surrounded by portraits he’s taken over the years of Jamaica’s Rastafarians, Clinton is pragmatic.

“I don't think that we Rastas can say, ‘We have done all of these things, and therefore there’s automatic right.’ For me, they should have that right. But some rest of society and especially certain people in business, they will box that idea right out of our mouths, as we say in Jamaica,” he said.

Groups such as the Ganja Law Reform Coalition, the Ganja Future Growers and Producers Association, and the Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Research Taskforce have been the driving forces over the past few years in pushing for ganja reform on the island. However, none of these groups has seriously taken up the issue of financial reparations or inclusion for Rastafarians. The various branches of the Rastafarian communities have also been slow to act. Having historically avoided political involvement, no significant political or social group has developed from the various branches of their community.

But how the new law will financially benefit Rastafarians is not the only concern.

While the new law does recognize Rastafarians use of the plant in holy ceremonies and makes steps to allow these practices to go unprosecuted, this brings up another question that has existential consequences to Barnett: “There is something problematic in allowing the government to now determine who is Rasta,” he said. “It’s a whole can of worms in itself.”

How exactly this will play out legally is still to be seen. The Jamaican government has determined that the Cannabis Licensing Authority will be the regulatory body helping establish the lawful industry. However, National Security Minister Peter Bunting has acknowledged in a speech to Parliament this past February that the new law would take some time to implement.

Hutton calls the government making decisions on who is Rastafarian foolish. “Maybe everyone will become Rasta now,” he says with a laugh.

Yet, it’s these kinds of unanswered issues that Hutton believes make it all the more imperative for Rastafarians to be active and vocal about the implementation of the law.

“This is an issue that Rastas have died for,” Hutton explains with a sudden seriousness. “This is an issue many have gone to prison for, that they have been victimized for, that they have been shut out of school and jobs for. Everything should be done to understand that. This issue is one of rights and justice. Not just in Jamaica but globally.”

Latest posts