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Caribbean Quarterly Volume 69 Issues 3 and 4

Edited by Keilah Mills McKoy, PhD

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Keilah Mills McKoy, PhD


Jamaica has been a major reference point for everything related to cannabis. Indeed, the island is described by some as having developed a distinct ganja complex over the past century, some of which is reflected in this special issue of Caribbean Quarterly. To position cannabis within a Jamaican framework, the plant becomes known as ganja in connection with the indentured East Indian labourers introduced into Jamaica in the 1840s. They were the first to cultivate it as a single crop. We know that cannabis had existed in the island before that but, rather than being used exclusively, was blended with other herbs including tobacco, rosemary, sage, corn silk, and trumpet leaf. It is believed that the herb was cultivated as a special, powerful plant understood especially by herbal doctors and other related, esoteric practitioners, and was grown as a mixed crop for smoking primarily in clay pipes. Among African Jamaicans in the colonial era, names for cannabis included green tobacco, wacky tobacco, tampie, macca, and diamba. Like cocoa, banana, ginger, and pimento – even coffee and coconut – ganja historically proved to be best cultivated via a small mix of inter-cropping. Ganja cultivation was often operated by small famers, such as an individual or family unit, in scales that produced optimum yields through careful season attention to given cash crop.

Throughout the twentieth century ganja became a major cash crop circulating heavily among the labouring classes of African, East Indian, and indigenous religious communities who understood it as a potent herb requiring ritual initiation. The multi-ethnic composition of the island also enabled the transposition of an Old World knowledge and connection to a population in a new reality far away: African and Asian cultures absorbed ganja in Jamaica to produce a syncretic, New World Rastafari sacramental ritual. These practices developed in threshold spaces and the no-man’s-land context of the urban ‘herb camp’ – spaces developed partly in response to the illegality of ganja but also functioned as a sanctuary (asylum space) for the unmolested celebration of the herb as it came to be globally blacklisted by the turn of the twentieth century.

More generally, ganja, seen locally as the herb, has long been part of bush  medicine, of which the simple ganja in rum preparations tincture is most common, but it is also cooked, used as incense, smoked, and used as meditative aid. There are even special preparations of ganja for newborns, and young children are usually introduced to it through teas or the secondary smoke blown on them by their parents or guardians for managing their asthma symptoms. Young boys often are encouraged to farm it at an early age in pursuit of financial independence and contributing to family sustenance. Ganja pervades the life cycle of folk through early initiation and involvement in the application of the herb.

Today, ganja is commonly available across Jamaica at points of sale some of which offer menus with up to thirty strains of choice and price points ranging from US$0.50 to US$20 per gram.4 The reference to gram weights for sale of the herb is also new in the Jamaican context as hitherto individuals used estimated measures or what might be called ‘hand’ or ‘eye’ estimates versus scales for apportioning small quantities of cannabis for sale. My fieldwork in Jamaica suggests there is seemingly little uptake among consumers on the legal provision for households to grow five plants for personal usage. Greater precision in the dispensing of small quantities has thus meant increased prices, variety (including imported strains), and quality (making better use of greenhouse and indoor approaches) to culture a clientele for whom cannabis is a novelty. To this extent, the hitherto freehanded exchange of this long-applied, first-response curative, bush medicine, and sacrament is no longer the primary focus in the marketplace.

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