Issue # 18 Sign Up for Free Mailing List

February 9, 2002

Narco News '02

Jamaica Marijuana

Reform Advances

Historic Legalization Amendment

to Conform with International Law

By National Public Radio

NOTE: Narco News seeks authentic citizen-journalists on the island of Jamaica to help provide ongoing immediate coverage of this developing history. Write to us at

From National Public Radio, Morning Edition

February 5, 2001

Listen to the NPR audio recording of this story


BOB EDWARDS, host: In Jamaica, marijuana may soon be legal. A government commission has recommended decriminalizing personal use of the plant, known there as ganja. Marijuana use is endemic on the island; Jamaicans grow, sell and smoke it almost everywhere. The United States has spent millions of dollars on eradication efforts and considers the initiative a setback in the war on drugs. NPR's Gerry Hadden reports from Kingston. (Soundbite of voices)

GERRY HADDEN reporting: In downtown Kingston's sprawling open market, Jamaicans shop for almost anything they need: shoes, produce, car parts and the ubiquitous ganja plant. Along a tiny alley called Luke Lane, a young man named Omar(ph) sits by a stack of long, green stems drooping with buds. Though it's illegal to sell marijuana, Omar says the police generally leave him alone. On a good day, he says he earns about 60 US dollars.

OMAR (Jamaican): Weed selling's a normal commodity business, like any business. You know what I'm saying? But it depends. Have a good grade of weed, like a high grade of weed, it don't ...(unintelligible), less than a day. You understand what I'm saying?


OMAR: So long as people know how good it is, it sells like food. (Unintelligible) buy it from the fisherman who then come. So the fish now are gonna stay more than half an hour. It's great. The crowd that passes, everybody knows how you're the ...(unintelligible) weed.

HADDEN: Omar hopes the government does legalize ganja for personal use. But he says it won't really affect his business. Jamaicans, he says, will always light up, whatever the law. That was the ultimate conclusion of a government-sponsored national commission on ganja, headed by University of the West Indies social sciences professor Barry Chevannes. Chevannes says like reggae and sunshine, pot-smoking in Jamaica is culturally entrenched.

Professor BARRY CHEVANNES (University of the West Indies): This is so widespread. If you ask me to get you a stick of herbs, I would think within three minutes I can get it for you.

HADDEN: Nevertheless, thousands of people each year do get arrested for lighting up. Chevannes says it's clogging up the courts and wasting police time. The ganja commission did recognize the health risks of smoking marijuana and has recommended better education for kids on the drug's dangers. But for adults, it concludes, smoking ganja should not be a crime. Prof.

CHEVANNES: Jamaicans don't use it in quite the way that Americans do nor do they get the same high out of it. They use it because they feel that it makes them work harder. I don't know, in fact, of any people who really use it to get high. They use it to meditate.

HADDEN: Some even consider it a sacrament. At the House of Dread Rastafari Community Center(ph) in Kingston, dread-locked Jamaicans who revere the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie spark up generous bowls of ganja with lung-searing frequency.

(Soundbite of inhaling)

HADDEN: Here in the center's vegetarian restaurant, a 50-year-old Rasta leader named Basil(ph) smokes dope and ladles out pumpkin soup to visitors. His dreadlocks and beard are pure white, except for his yellow, smoke-tinged moustache.

(Soundbite of voices)

BASIL: We use it as a burnt offering. That's what herb is for. And it's for medicational purposes or the medicine is used for the glaucoma medication made for eyes. It also expand your mind to achieve.

HADDEN: The United States government sees it differently. Orna Bloom(ph) is spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Jamaica.

Ms. ORNA BLOOM (Spokeswoman, US Embassy, Jamaica): The United States government opposes the decriminalization of marijuana use because it creates the perception, especially to our youth, that marijuana is not harmful, which could lead then to an increase in its use.

HADDEN: Another US concern: Jamaica is a major exporter of ganja to the United States. Allowing its personal use could entice local farmers to plant more crops destined for American streets. Jamaica's ganja commission recommends tougher sanctions on those who grow for export. Jamaica's prime minister has indicated he'd like to submit the ganja proposal to parliament for debate, and both houses are drafting constitutional amendments that could safeguard the right to smoke pot in private without violating international drug conventions. Gerry Hadden, NPR News, Kingston, Jamaica.

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