It's almost impossible to discuss reggae and marijuana without mentioning pop culture’s favorite stoner, Bob Marley. Bob Marley's introduction to ganja, and the eventual marriage of ganja and reggae music, is an interesting story to say the least. It is not unusual for artists to weave their religion into their artistry. It was this intersection of art and religion that spawned the relationship between marijuana and reggae. In fact, it was Bob Marley’s Rastafarian religion - and a specific verse in the Bible - that provided the justification for his use of cannabis.
In the 1970s the world did not know much about the exaggerated drum and bass sounds that would eventually become known as reggae. However, in the late 1970s a dread-headed, spliff-toting, guitar-wielding Rastafarian arrived whom history would remember not only for his musical talent but also for his promotion of marijuana use. This Rastafarian was Bob Marley. His dreadlocks, guitar, and spliff would become symbolic of his aesthetic as well as of the reggae genre.
The loosening of laws associated with marijuana use these days is a blessing, but in the 1970s marijuana usage was an act of true rebellion. To this day, Marley's homeland, Jamaica, although known unofficially for extensive marijuana exportation, has still not fully legalized marijuana usage.
Rastafarians have fought a tough fight for marijuana usage and legalization in Jamaica. They have endured physical and psychological injuries inflicted by police and even mass killings. The Rastafari beliefs, which include the smoking of marijuana, rendered Rastafarians vulnerable in a class-conscious, Jamaican society. In 1963, Rastafarians were the targets of a gruesome massacre that has come to be known only as "Bad Friday" or “The Coral Gardens Massacre”. The Coral Gardens massacre involved the beating and imprisonment of Rastafarians on the basis that they were weed-smoking criminals. The perpetrators even chopped off the hair of some of these Rastafarians. Today, however, due to the popularity of Bob Marley and reggae music, Rastafarians are now seen as an important part of Jamaican history as well as its culture.
The Rastafari religion is often misunderstood. It is characterized as a mere excuse for sitting around and getting high with friends. These negative views were aired in the 1970s in a BBC’s 60 minutes program that painted Rastafarianism as nothing more than a religion masking drug-smuggling activity. The Rastafarian position is that the use of marijuana is biblically based.
Rastafarians believe that the “Tree of Life” mentioned in the Bible is none other than the holy marijuana plant and that several other biblical passages further promote its use, such as “Thou shalt eat the herb of the field” (Genesis 3:18), “Eat every herb of the land” (Exodus 10:12), and “The herb is the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). Even though weed itself has become a pop culture staple, Rastafarians, and even pop king Marley himself, condemn the use of marijuana for the sole purpose of getting high. In the Rastafarian religion marijuana is used in religious ceremonies and for spiritual purposes. Marijuana is smoked to reach a state of enlightenment and to conjure spiritual visions. Rastafarians usually have grounding sessions, also called religious meetings that involve meditation, where weed is used to help users attain a magical altered state, almost like a trance. A prayer is always delivered before the herb is smoked or steamed using a chalice.
The fact that weed is still not fully legal in Jamaica is ironic. Jamaica is known unofficially for the abundance and availability of the plant. Jamaican reggae artists are aggressive advocates for the use of and legalization of marijuana. The lyrics of their songs promote the positive use of the plant for attaining enlightenment as well as physical and mental healing. The "Legalize It" campaign in Jamaica was inspired by the late reggae artist Peter Tosh's song of the same name. The song itself had been banned upon its release in 1975. Tosh would have been proud today that Jamaica has moved the closest it has ever come to legalizing the plant when the government in 2015 decriminalized possession of two ounces or less of marijuana.
The experience of states in the U.S. that have legalized marijuana, such as Colorado, offers a promising future for the commodification of ganja in Jamaica where ganja grows on an average of 35,000 acres. With legalization and the added production of marijuana products, Jamaica could position itself as one of the top Caribbean suppliers of marijuana to the United States. The cannabis industry could also provide hope for a growing tourism industry. Classes in marijuana plant breeding and growing techniques could bring visitors to the island. Reggae festivals combined with marijuana use would also attract tourists. There is already the relationship between reggae music and cannabis. A visit to local studios such as Tuff Gong, owned by the Marley Family, reveals the usage of marijuana as an integral part of music creation. The government has recently provided an exemption for marijuana usage at music events. Thus, the inclusion of marijuana smoking as a legal part of a music event was introduced in January 2016 at the annual two-day festival called Rebel Salute which features most of Jamaica's premiere reggae acts. These artists have an impressive repertoire of ganja-themed songs and hits. Weed was freely sold alongside sellers of casual food items such as ital foods, nuts and fruit drinks. Patrons who attended the festival could smoke their weed while enjoying the music. The structure for a unique and flourishing marijuana industry does exist in Jamaica but unfortunately bureaucracy still impedes progress.
Despite the fact that countless research has shown that cannabis is far less harmful than alcohol and tobacco and, in fact, has beneficial medical uses, there still seems to be concern about its usage. One thing remains certain, however. The history of reggae would not be complete without the unapologetic lighting up of a spliff.