Boekhout van Solinge, Tim (1996), Ganja in Jamaica. Amsterdams Drug Tijdschrift, nr 2, December 1996, pp. 11-14. English translation by Jeanette Roberts.
© Copyright 1996, 2000 Tim Boekhout van Solinge. All rights reserved.


Ganja in Jamaica

Tim Boekhout van Solinge

Jamaica is a country that appeals to one's imagination. The tropical island in the Caribbean Sea, once mainly famous for its rum, is nowadays more associated with reggae, Rastas, and ganja, i.e., marijuana. No other country supposedly has a higher consumption of cannabis than Jamaica. Myth or reality? Tim Boekhout van Solinge was recently in Jamaica and investigated this issue.

Jamaica has a longstanding reputation for its ganja, marijuana of international top quality. In fact, Jamaica is a country with a traditional use of cannabis, dating back some 150 years. Jamaica's traditional cannabis use took on mythical proportions in the course of the 1970s, not lastly due to the emergence of Bob Marley. This reggae singer from the ghettos of Jamaica's capital, Kingston, was the first Third World artist, who achieved world-wide recognition. The hippie movement of the West embraced Bob Marley and many other Rasta singers. Apart from preaching peace & love, many Jamaican artists also called for the legalisation of cannabis in their reggae songs. These artists did not only sing about ganja, many of them were also passionate smokers. Reggae artists (but not each and every single one) quite often like to light up a spliff or two during studio sessions. Reggae music, the message of the texts that often could not be seen independently of Rastafarian religious beliefs, combined with the use of cannabis... 'Jamaica, reggae, Rastas and ganja', as a whole appealed to the imagination, and to some extent determined the picture that was formed of Jamaica.

Of course, things are not that simple. The population of Jamaica does not consist of Rastafarians alone - they form an estimated 5 percent of the population - and not every Rastafarian smokes ganja. On the other hand, ganja is also widely used by non-Rastafarians.


Jamaica is one of the larger islands in the Caribbean Sea. It is located about 200 kilometres south of Cuba, covering a surface equal to a third of the Netherlands, and is inhabited by approximately 2.5 million people. Jamaica is a beautiful country with white beaches, a turquoise sea, and a tropical climate. Thanks to plenty of rain, a lot of sun and fertile soil, Jamaica has a magnificent, green landscape, its hilly and thinly populated interior criss-crossed by rivers with waterfalls.

Jamaica, despite this heavenly beauty, is a country plagued by many problems. The vast majority of the population is poor; a situation, which is even more deplorable, when compared to the - even by Western standards - very rich, upper section of society. Another problem is that the country suffers under a huge burden of debt, which makes Jamaica one of the (relative) largest debtor countries of the Third World. Finally, Jamaica is a country characterised by the level of violence. With roughly 700 murders per year, it is one of the most violent countries in the world. The majority of these murders take place in Jamaica's capital, Kingston, where all of Jamaica's problems are concentrated.

The population of Jamaica is mainly of African origin (about 80 percent). Further, there are Indians, Chinese, Lebanese, Jews, and Caucasians. In Jamaica, skin colour and social class are closely connected. One could generally say that the lighter the colour of a person's skin, the higher his/her social standing in the community. In this context, the afore-mentioned structure is therefore also referred to as a 'colour caste' system. The origin of this structure has to be sought in Jamaica's colonial history.


Columbus landed in Jamaica in 1494 during his second journey to the Americas. His advent led to the Spanish rule that lasted until 1655. When the British defeated the Spanish on Jamaica in the same year, the original inhabitants, the Arowak Indians, were already extinct. They had been wiped out, or had succumbed to European illnesses, against which they had no resistance. From 1655 until 1962, the year of independence, Jamaica was a British colony and thus the country of the Commonwealth empire under the longest colonial rule.

The colonial era was characterised by the plantation system. The Jamaican economy consisted of plantations that produced for the world market. In the case of Jamaica, the product was sugar. In the 18th century, Jamaica was one of the largest sugar producers of the Caribbean region, and with that the country had one of the most perfected plantation systems in the Caribbean. The workforce necessary for the production of sugarcane was 'imported' from Africa: many hundreds of thousands of slaves, mainly from West Africa, were shipped in.

After the abolishment of slavery in 1838, many slaves left the plantations. They preferred a small, independent farmer's existence above the work on the plantations. The demand for labour initiated the advent of new immigrants: the contract labourers. In the 19th century, about 33,000 Indians and 5,000 Chinese came to Jamaica.

It is assumed that marijuana came to Jamaica with the Indians. This also explains why in Jamaica a Hindi word is used for marijuana, namely ganja. Through the Indians ganja spread to the lower classes of society; in fact, the black section of the population. Ganja is currently a widely-used substance in the countryside and in the poor districts of the large towns. To Rastafarians, the followers of the religious black consciousness movement Rastafari, the reason for using ganja is more profound. They look upon ganja as a holy plant, which enables them to deepen their faith.


Marcus Garvey
Marcus Mosiah Garvey

The religious black consciousness movement, Rastafari, was founded in the 1920s and 1930s in Jamaica. Key person and in a certain sense the father of the Rastafarian movement is the Jamaican Marcus Garvey. In the 1920s, he denounced the inferior treatment of Blacks in Jamaica and the US. Garvey is considered as one of he first black nationalists and Pan-Africans. He founded the Universal Black Negro Association in the US, which was represented in forty countries and supposedly had ten million members. Garvey's influence on the black consciousness movement was enormous. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in the US, and African leaders such as Nkrumah, Lumumba and Kenyatta were inspired by his ideas and his many writings.

Some of Garvey's followers (the 'Garveyites') considered him to be a prophet. Garvey supposedly predicted that a black king would come to power, who would be the saviour of the black people. It is unclear whether Garvey really did make this predication. In 1930, a stage play by Garvey entitled The Coronation of the King and the Queen of Africa was performed in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica. Some people believed the content of this play to be real. In any case, shortly afterwards Ras (= Prince in Aramaic) Tafari was crowned emperor of Ethiopia, immediately accrediting himself with the biblical titles King of Kings, Lords of Lords, and Conquering Lion of the Twelve Tribes of Judah, and claiming to be a direct descendant of King Salomon. For some of Garvey's followers this was the fulfilment of the prophesy. They began to call themselves Ras Tafaris and believed in the divineness of Haile Selassie, subsequently referring to themselves as Jah (from Jehovah).

Haile Selassie
Haile Selassie

Apart from the biblical titles they also saw other signs that this emperor had to be the saviour. At that time (thus prior to Mussolini's invasion in 1935), Ethiopia was the only African country that had not been under Western rule. The fact that many foreign dignitaries were present was therefore interpreted as yet another sign that this was a special coronation. In the 1950s, Selassie frequently made statements in favour of the independence of African colonies and Ethiopia became more or less a symbol for African independence. Many African countries therefore adapted the colours of Ethiopia's national flag, green-yellow-red, when they finally became independent. The Rastafarian movement too, adapted these colours.

Being a Rastafarian actually means that one believes in the divineness of Haile Selassie and wants to return home to Africa, the country of origin. Selassie is said to be the saviour of the black (African) people, who were taken to the Americas against their will. There they live in virtual captivity, just as the 'Babylonian Captivity' mentioned in the bible.

Over the years the role of Haile Selassie and Africa gradually changed from a literal significance to a more symbolic significance. This change was brought about by the death of Selassie in 1975 and the realisation by an increasing number of Jamaicans that not all of Selassie's actions were 'soul-saving'. Furthermore, Africa and Ethiopia are no longer looked upon as the promised land by all Rastafarians. Being a Rastafarian now rather symbolises black consciousness and the understanding that Blacks are not inferior to Whites.

The holy herb

Although there are various Rastafarian groups, the majority of Rastafarians does not belong to a group; being a Rastafarian is - above all else - a personal perception. There are, however, a number of rules. Rastafarians eat 'Ital', which means that only natural, vegetarian food without salt is consumed. The most eye-catching aspect is the hairdo of the Rasta, the dreadlocks. One of the most famous 'rules' is smoking the holy herb. To Rastafarians, ganja is not only a mere mind-altering substance, it is the holy herb mentioned in the bible. Sometimes it is also claimed that the holy herb grew on the grave of King Salomon. The use of ganja is supposed to lead to a deeper faith, which explains the fact why ganja is smoked at religious Rastafarian ceremonies.

Cannabis lovers in the West with an overly romanticised image of Jamaica and the Rastafarian movement may occasionally get the impression that Rastafarians spend a good part of their day smoking 'peace pipes' filled with ganja. True, Rastafarians usually do smoke regularly and more frequently than non-Rastafarians, yet it is still a matter of moderate and integrated use, like the consumption of ganja in Jamaica in general. In the streets of Jamaica you will seldom come across people heavily intoxicated from smoking ganja. Larger amounts of ganja are only consumed at special occasions like religious ceremonies or during an afternoon or evening in the circle of friends.

Ganja in Jamaica

Earlier we already suggested that ganja is not only smoked by Rastas but that marijuana, especially among the lower classes, is a widely-consumed substance in Jamaican society. Jamaica is sometimes quoted as the country with the highest consumption of cannabis. Estimates given in this regard state that about 60 to 70 percent of the population occasionally use (or used) cannabis.

In reality there is little reliable information to support these estimates. However, it is certain that Jamaica is one of the countries where the use of cannabis has existed for many generations and occurs very frequently. This was the very reason why a team of American researchers travelled to Jamaica in the 1970s to carry out a prolonged and extensive study on the effects of chronic (long-term) cannabis use. In 1976, the researchers Vera Rubin and Lambros Comitas published the findings of this study entitled: Ganja in Jamaica. A medical anthropological study of chronic marihuana use. This study is still considered one of the classic studies of cannabis use. This particular study was probably also the source of the stories that about.60 to 70 percent of the population use cannabis. Though this study does not provide any precise data to that effect, an estimation was made nevertheless. In the different communities across the Jamaican countryside where the research was carried out, over 50 percent of the men older than 15 years were found to smoke cannabis, and 7 percent were found to have smoked in the past. As women also smoke cannabis, albeit less than men, and drinking ganja tea is common among non-smokers, Rubin & Comitas conclude that about 60 to 70 percent of the lower classes of the rural population use cannabis in one form or another.

Manner of use

There is no reason to assume that current cannabis use in Jamaica differs substantially from the situation described by Rubin & Comitas. However, the situation has changed in the sense that today stronger forms of cannabis can be found in Jamaica compared to then. In the 1970s and 1980s, Americans have exported their knowledge about stronger cannabis variants also to Jamaica.

The fact that today's ganja is stronger than 20 years ago has probably led to the fact that people smoke fewer joints per day. The daily amount of joints (spliffs) that was consumed by ganja smokers according to Rubin & Comitas, namely seven on average, (low use was defined as less than four joints per day, high use as more than eight), no longer appears to apply to present-day Jamaica. I have personally visited Jamaica several times and for prolonged periods of time and have lived in rural communities as well, and such amounts appear to me as extremely excessive.

I have always compared the use of ganja in Jamaica with the consumption of alcohol in France. Alcohol is consumed frequently, but in a general sense the consumption is moderate and socially integrated. Just as the French can sometimes be seen drinking a glass of wine in the morning and think nothing of it to enjoy a glass of wine at lunch, Jamaicans may smoke a joint in the morning and light up another in their midday break.

But here has to be mentioned that the entire use pattern of ganja in Jamaica differs completely from what we are used to in the West: a Jamaican actually never finishes his joint in one go. A smoker usually takes one or several puffs, lets the joint go out, lights it up again later, and repeats the process. It is not unusual that a joint is lit five or six times and that it takes half an hour or an hour before the whole joint is smoked. This method of use - moderate and not at all aimed at becoming heavily intoxicated - explains why in Jamaica people are seldom seen really stoned on ganja. Should you come across a very intoxicated person in the street, it is much more likely that the intoxication is the result of Jamaican rum.

On a recent trip to Jamaica, I discovered that drinking cannabis is looked upon completely different than smoking it. To my great surprise people of whom I knew that they were strongly opposed to smoking ganja and had never smoked it before, turned out to drink ganja tea (almost) daily. Sure, I knew that ganja tea was often used as medicine, particularly in the countryside, but that drinking ganja occurred to such a large extent was new to me. Many people who I had known for a long time and had always considered non-cannabis users (among them grandpas and grandmas in their 70s) turned out to start off the day with a glass of ganja tea! However, ganja tea is not made from the same, ripened and dried plants that are used for smoking. Ganja tea is drawn from the young, green plant.

Many Jamaicans drink ganja tea - to which they attribute various therapeutic and prophylactic qualities - as medicine. The tea is said to make the body strong and less susceptible to illness. It is also often drunk, if someone suffers from a fever or a cold. Furthermore, ganja is said to be a good remedy for stress.


It goes without saying that if ganja is used on such a large scale, production must be large as well. Many farmers grow ganja, mostly on a small-scale basis. The profits from ganja are mainly considered a little extra on top of the normal income.

Ganja became big business in the 70s, as it was exported on a large-scale basis to the US. This led to a higher, more large-scale and export-oriented production in Jamaica. It is a public secret that many upper-class families and other high-ranking persons were involved in this export. The grass was mainly exported in small one-engine planes, and this required capital. Here and there in Jamaica, rests of these former ganja planes can still be seen.

The export of the 70s was mainly aimed at the US. Since Reagan and his successor Bush started the 'War on Drugs' in the 80s, the nature of the production as well as the nature of the export changed. Jamaica's fairly large-scale production of ganja of the 70s (large fields), is no longer evident today. The Jamaican Police and Army, with or without the help of their American colleagues, are searching for plantations with men and with helicopters. The farmers have therefore adjusted their production, and make sure that the ganja is hard to detect from the air by planting it, for example, between high banana- or coconut trees.

Due to the American 'War on Drugs', the export of ganja has become harder and more limited. Nowadays, small planes are seldom used and ganja is instead increasingly often transported by boat or smuggled by passengers on commercial flights. Another (unintended) consequence of the 'War on Drugs' was that some of the former exporters shifted from the export of ganja to the transit trade in cocaine. Cocaine does not smell as strong as ganja and is much more lucrative. This side-effect of the 'War on Drugs' did not only mean that at the beginning of the 80s it was sometimes easier to get crack than marijuana in, for example, New York but it also led to the sudden availability of lots of cocaine (in the form of crack) in Kingston's ghettos.

The Jamaican authorities have a somewhat ambivalent attitude with respect to ganja. Actions are taken against production, trade and use. The army and police are deployed to fight production. In order to fight the trade, the police often sets up road blocks. These roadblocks are set up mainly on the roads coming from the direction of Westmoreland, the south-western province, which is known as the primary production area. However, the question is whether these roadblocks are erected in order to fight ganja, or whether their primary purpose is to cash in on bribes.

In principle ganja users in Jamaica are prosecuted but if consumption is discrete, the police is unlikely to intervene quickly. This however does not apply to Westerners, as the police assumes that the foreign ganja smoker who got caught, would rather part with a few US dollars, than spend some time in a Jamaican prison.

So the Jamaican authorities in principle are fighting ganja but mainly because the big brother in the North, the US, is expressing such great desire. Every decision-maker in Jamaica knows that ganja use is integrated in the country's culture and tradition. These decision-makers also know that ganja is a too important sector of the economy, as to intervene all too hard. Ganja is often called the most important pillar of the Jamaican economy, supposedly bringing in 1 to 1.5 billion US dollars per year, ca. 250 million of which benefit the country as 'white' money. In any case, ganja is by far Jamaica's most important export crop and therefore too important for the national economy. High and low classes of society are involved in this sector, from the poor farmer in the mountains to the big businessman involved in export.


Jamaicans have been calling for the legalisation of ganja for many years, not only in reggae songs but also in the form of demonstrations. For a long time already, the Rastafarian movement has devoted itself to fighting for the legal use of their 'holy herb'. Last February 15,000 Rastafarians demonstrated in Kingston to that effect. For the time-being, there will be no change in the ambivalent attitude of the Jamaican authorities with respect to ganja. For the time-being, the fight against production and trade will continue in order to keep the US happy, but at the same time, everyone knows that this is an economic sector, which is too important to the economy of the country.