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Marijuana's Relationship with Reggae and Its Future Prospects in Jamaica

Marijuana's Relationship with Reggae and Its Future Prospects in Jamaica

Posted by Shanelle Weir on January 08, 2015

Despite Jamaican reggae's pro-cannabis stance over the past six decades, the plant remains illegal in the music's birthplace.

Jamaica's reggae artists are unrivaled in their vociferous championing of marijuana usage and persistent rallying for its legalization. A primary tenet of the island's indigenous Rastafarian way of life, which is inextricably linked to the cultural identity of roots reggae, regards cannabis, or ganja, as a sacred herb; since the late 1960s Rastafarian artists have promoted ganja's healing properties in their song lyrics, which has resulted in an organic decriminalization campaign summarized by the title track of the late, visionary Peter Tosh's 1976 debut albumLegalize It (Columbia Records).

Despite Jamaican reggae's pro-cannabis stance over the past six decades, the plant remains illegal in the music's birthplace; the single "Legalize It" was promptly banned in Jamaica upon its 1975 release. But the island moved a step closer to fulfilling Tosh's plea last September, when the country's Ministry of Justice put forth legislation to decriminalize possession of two ounces or less of marijuana, amidst increasing pressure to do so from representatives of the island's agricultural and medical sectors and following relaxed laws in several U.S. states, as well as Uruguay's becoming the first nation to regulate legal production, sale and consumption of the plant.

In Colorado and Washington, where sales of marijuana have been legalized for recreational use, thriving cannabis tourism industries generating millions in state tax revenue offer travel package itineraries, featuring visits to marijuana production facilities, classes in plant breeding/growing techniques, sampling/purchasing various herb strains and their byproducts, even cannabis-infused massages.

In Jamaica, where ganja grows on an estimated 37,066 acres across the island, making it the top Caribbean supplier of marijuana to the United States and its Caribbean neighbors (according to the US State Department's 2014 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report), a projected -- legal -- marijuana tourism sector could offer everything Colorado and Washington can, in addition to a native soundtrack of thousands of herb-themed songs, visits to recording studios where smoking is inherent to the creative process, and a two-day marathon-length reggae festival, Rebel Salute, that features many of Jamaica's best acts responsible for some of reggae's greatest ganja anthems.

"Most Jamaican artists have herb songs, not just telling you to smoke it but songs about getting it legalized, and from the very first Rebel Salute 21 years ago, artists have put forward that message so our country can benefit from legalization," says Tony Rebel, Rastafarian sing-jay/producer whose Organic Heart group of companies promotes the cannabis-friendly festival. Since its inaugural staging in January 1994 as Rebel's birthday concert celebration (and the following year to honor his close friend, beloved singer Garnet Silk, who died in an explosion at home in December 1994 at age 27)

Rebel Salute has consistently adhered to Rastafarian principles that shun alcohol and meat consumption (both are prohibited from sale at the festival) but enthusiastically promote the use of ganja.

Herb is freely smoked by Rebel Salute's patrons and openly sold by (independent) vendors hawking their stalks of sinsemilla (a potent, seedless strain of marijuana referenced in countless reggae songs) alongside sellers of soft drinks and peanuts. Rebel, who attained widespread popularity in the early '90s promoting edifying themes on such hits as "Teach The Children" and "The Herb", a commendation of ganja's healing properties and income-generating advantages for the poor, says the Jamaican police understand the relationship between Rasta, reggae and marijuana celebrated at Rebel Salute and therefore, refrain from arresting herb sellers or smokers.

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