For Rastafarians, ganja wasn’t seen as an intoxicant, and instead considered a “sacred herb” used for holy communion with God, or Jah. Hausman says the rituals surrounding their smoking were a hybrid of the way the island’s Arawak natives would take in copious amounts of tobacco during ceremonies, melded with biblical passages such as Genesis 1:29: “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed … to you it shall be for meat.” Even the manner in which Rastas blow the smoke from their noses mirrors the passage in Psalm 18:8: “There went up a smoke out of his nostrils.”
“The very act of smoking ganja is considered a form of religious worship among the Rastas,” Robert J. Stewart writes in his essay, “Religion and Society in Post-Emancipation Jamaica.” “Rastafarians will stop talking, doff their caps, and pray for a blessing upon themselves and in praise of Jah Rastafari … Smoking the herb is freely compared to both the sharing of the communion cup and the burning of incense as these are practiced in the various churches.”
These rituals would make up the foundation of Rastafari, becoming as integral to the faith as praying toward Mecca is to Muslims. “It wasn’t only a holy sacrament, but it also became the concept and infrastructure of a church without walls,” says Hausman, explaining that Rasta ceremonies weren’t as concerned with physical sanctuaries as they were social and spiritual communion. “It was people sitting in a circle, smoking and reasoning and telling these old, Biblical stories.”
With the Rastas encouraging open rebellion from the English government, refusing to pay taxes and separating themselves from the “Babylonian” culture of the colonists when it came to food, fashion and religion, the government and the media both acted to portray them as a dangerous faction worthy of incarceration.
Demonizing ganja became their most effective tool in this endeavor.
On Easter Weekend 1963, a clash between Rastas and local police grew into a riot, leading the state to send in the army, which resulted in the deaths of eight people and mass arrests of Rastafarian men, women and children. “The local newspaper, The Daily Gleaner, carried stories claiming that the disturbance and mass revolt by the Rastas was caused by their being under the influence of ganja,” writes Erskine, who grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. “The perception of Rastas reflected in the national newspaper was that they were lazy, did not want to work and were always smoking ganja.”
Sound familiar? A cursory glance at the U.S. media’s depiction of pot smokers over the last century reveals similar themes as Jamaica’s, reinforcing stereotypes that marijuana use incites violence, laziness and addiction. And these antiquated trends continue to this day, with Jesse Watters, a correspondent for “The O’Reilly Factor” recently being sent out to interview Denver’s homeless pot smokers, followed by O’Reilly asserting that one inevitably leads to the other. Whether intentionally or not, these beliefs about cannabis have led to a system in which African-Americans are arrested almost four times as often for marijuana as are whites, despite both races using the drug in nearly equal numbers.
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Marijuana advocates point to former U.S. Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger (often cited as the father of the war on drugs) as evidence of marijuana prohibition’s racist leanings. During his 1930s campaign against cannabis, he is quoted as saying, “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
Again, Jamaica’s marijuana laws have led to a similar dynamic; though as Mitchell points out, black people make up the majority of the nation (90.9%), so the arrest rates primarily follow class divides instead of racial ones.
While the U.S. has seen full legalization in Colorado, Washington and most recently Oregon and Alaska, Jamaica isn’t going that far, only decriminalizing cannabis. Similar to Washington D.C.’s current status, the change won’t immediately bring about an industry of brick-and-mortar marijuana dispensaries, but it will bring down incarceration rates for poorer citizens possessing ganja for their own personal use.
That both the U.S. and Jamaica are making legitimate steps toward marijuana reform is a sign that both countries are continuing to move away from their roots of colonization and slavery. Obviously the U.S. still has a long road to travel in terms of race relations, but the country also still has a ways to go when it comes to cultural attitudes toward marijuana. As with racism, laws that oppress minorities can be changed, but altering the public opinion inspired by those laws can’t be erased with the swipe of a legislator’s pen.
There have been a handful of moments in modern comedy that parody Caucasian appropriation of Rasta culture – most notably Andy Samberg’s brilliant “Ras Trent” sketch on “Saturday Night Live,” and the “Homerpalooza” episode on “The Simpsons,” where Homer gets accused of a hate crime for wearing a Rasta hat. Though the latter was more of a send-up of reactionary PC culture in the ’90s, and the former merely accuses “Trustafarians” of being pathetic losers rather than insensitive jerks.
In addition to learning more about the rich anthropological legacy of Rastafarians, it’s going to take the public educating themselves on the dark history of racist propaganda embedded in mainstream views of marijuana before society will give the same respect to Rastas that is granted to Jewish, Islamic or American Indian cultures.