The colors red, gold, and green cover the white stoner’s clothes and decorate the dispensaries he frequents. Folks familiar with reggae or Caribbean culture may have heard the three colors also referred to as “Ites, Green, and Gold” as Jamaican artist Johnny Clarke sang. While these colors are commonly mistaken for the Jamaican flag, they are actually the flag of Ethiopia, claimed by Rastafari for its connection to Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia between 1930 and 1974, whom Rastafarians revere as a prophet and incarnation of Jah, or god, on Earth. Even if the name Selassie is foreign to you, you likely already know a speech he gave, as sung by Bob Marley in the 1976 song “War.” The American and Canadian cannabis industries are soaked in Jamaican ganja culture, but so far, we have yet to pay them for it.
“Jamaica is being taken advantage of,” says Dr. Lakisha Jenkins, founder of Jenasis, a partnership enterprise producing all agricultural commodities including cannabis. “All these companies are coming here, from mostly Canada, creating companies, exporting back to Canada, and going public on the Canadian stock market. It’s not helping Jamaica at all, not even a little bit,” Dr. Jenkins says.
Rastafarians have always used cannabis sacramentally, but until the government decriminalized the plant in 2015, faced mass persecution and jail time. Jamaica’s ganja history is marked by what Rastafari refer to as “Bad Friday,” an incident in 1963 in which Rastafarians protested police harassment near a police station in Montego Bay. The situation turned violent, and the police killed eight Rastafarians. “Because Rastafari are a anti-colonial movement, Rastafarians are targeted by the state,” says Rastafarian activist Ras Iyah V.
Now, under the Alternative Development Programme, or ADP, previously illicit farms can transition to the legal market and supply Jamaican and Canadian companies with medical marijuana. Possession under two ounces is a ticketed offense, and Rastas are free to grow ganja and use it for religious purposes. There are hopes that Jamaica could bring in as much as $50 billion within the next decade by entering the global market. However, the nation faces many roadblocks. Ironically, one hindrance into entering the global economy is the exact reason we’re having this conversation — Jamaican’s legendary ganja culture.
“The Jamaican cannabis industry is slowly moving forward. They have been taking their time in terms of how they regulate the industry. There was a lot of effort put into attracting foreign investment,” says Dr. Andre Haughton, a Senator in the Upper House of Parliament and senior lecturer at the University of the West Indies. “The locals who gave Jamaica that brand name, have been predominantly left out. It is a competition between the emerging medical cannabis industry and the traditional ganja industry,” Dr. Haughton says. “We have to stop vilifying ganja and realize it is a necessary complement to the reggae music and our culture, and this is what the world appreciates us for.”
Dr. Haughton is one of many Jamaicans working hard to ensure that the local policies reflect and protect Jamaican culture. There are enough vultures off the island to deal with.
Like most predominantly Black places, white folks often mistake Jamaican’s economic struggles as local ignorance. Issues such as the high cost of electricity, which makes hydroponic growing methods difficult, or the limited number of manufacturing facilities exist because of colonialism — and not because Jamaicans need to be taught how to grow and sell cannabis. This becomes even more problematic when white folks come to Jamaica to “fix” the cannabis market without ensuring that the money made filters back into the Jamaican economy, and thus not only reinforces a colonialist cycle, but often fail.
“I have seen Canadian growers come to Jamaica and bring greenhouses, their plants, their pots, and their soil. The plants don’t tend to perform that well,” says Dr. Machel Emanuel, a researcher in the Department of Life Sciences at the University of the West Indies. Noting the specific attributes of cultivating cannabis within a tropical climate, Dr. Emanuel says this is why the Jamaican cannabis industry needs experienced indigenous farmers rather than a foreigner.
“[The legal cannabis industry] can be a continuation of slavery and colonization if not handled in the proper way with Jamaican people becoming the labor force, rather than the wealth going in the pocket of foreigners and even in [that of] Jamaican rich people,” Iyah V says.
There are Americans and Canadians who live in Jamaica and are working to make the path to entering the international market easier by reducing red tape rather than reducing Jamaica’s economy.
“I don’t have anything against investors coming in,” Iyah V says. “The problem that I have is why are they coming in? What is it that they want to achieve? How do they want to relate to the Jamaican traditional ganja farmers? It’s a matter if they want to exploit or people or partner with our people.”
Jamaica welcomes outside help; they simply wish to retain ownership over their culture and to avoid additional exploitation.
“My life and work in Jamaica regarding cannabis would be to help to organize the supply chain and to create a system where we contribute positively to the GDP of Jamaica and actively change the economic position of citizens,” Dr. Jenkins says. This plan of action involves working with JAMPRO, an Agency of the Government of Jamaica’s Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries (MICAF) that facilitates investment and exports, MICAFdirectly, and the Jamaica Agricultural Society to ensure farmers have access to land and an easy registration process.
“They don’t need to reinvent the wheel they’ve been doing this. Let us help you do what you do and be the best at it because your success is our success, at the end of the day it’s a symbiotic relationship,” Dr. Jenkins says. “I don’t tell a professional how to do their job.”
Jamaica is not a retail-centric market. Dispensaries exist, but as so many citizens grow their own, or get ganja from farmer friends, locals are likely to leave dispensaries to the tourists and enjoy Jamaica’s signature sun grown Sativa in a more affordable and accessible manner. Jamaica is not the perfect place to grow cannabis. There is clay in the soil. Hurricanes strike. Access to water supply is more difficult and expensive than in the U.S. and Canada. But you can grow cannabis year-round in Jamaica as it’s close to a 12/12 light cycle. Micro-climates in the hidden mountains and valleys of the tropical island create strains with signature cannabinoid profiles. Jamaica’s goal is to become a bulk ingredient manufacturer in the export market with this plethora of cannabis.
“While everyone is focusing on isolating constituents CBD and THC, we need to be focusing on full spectrum whole plant medicine. There’s no place to get that better than from Jamaica,” Dr. Jenkins says.
Cole Phillips, Director of Agronomy and Cultivation with Jenasis, predicts Jamaica exporting outdoor flower as oil. Phillips moved to Jamaica from Canada five years ago.
“Jamaica is synonymous with cannabis just as it is with reggae. Jamaica already has the biggest brand. There are other countries in an equatorial area that have similar climates that may have rich soils and can do it for a similar cost, but they don’t have a culture that has such a rich history in cannabis. That is something Jamaica has that sets us apart from everybody,” he says.
“It’s the reason why I want to be here. I’m trying to be at the forefront of helping Jamaican farmers get their product to a level where they can make a profit off of it and enter an international market.”
The thought of a Jamaican spliff (in Jamaica, this term is synonymous for joint and need not contain tobacco) evokes the image of a sungrown Sativa. It’s not as intense in THC levels as bud from a California indoor farm, but that’s not always what you’re after.
“If you’re going to compete in a global marketplace, then you must compete with your niche. Jamaica’s niche is that nice smooth mellow outdoor Sativa that so many millions of people travel to Jamaica for,” Dr. Haughton says.
There is work left, certainly, but within the next five to ten years if all goes as planned, you can expect to see Jamaican cannabis on the international market. Rather than bud grown in the Emerald Triangle but wrapped in a Rastafarian flag go for the actual ganja. While bigger and bolder has become en vogue with cannabis, there are times which one should relax on island time with equatorial island bud.
“Jamaica already has ganja culture. When the export market opens, then you’ll see Jamaican-grown that any avid cannabis connoisseur would be eager to try. Once we reach that level of quality assurance, safety. and ethical and moral values, Jamaica could be a forceful player internationally,” Dr. Emanuel says.