Sat | Feb 29, 2020

Weed Ed | Ganja, human rights and Rastafari

Published:Monday | December 10, 2018 | 12:00 AM

On Wednesday, November 2, 2016, Bongo Beard, a Rastafarian, was travelling through the streets of Montego Bay. He was on his way to a Nyabinghi celebration to mark the anniversary of the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I and Empress Menen of Ethiopia, a significant annual celebration for the Rastafari community.

While travelling, Bongo Beard was stopped and searched by police. He had in his possession 10 pounds of ganja, which was to be used as a sacrament during the ceremony he was attending.

He was taken to the Barnett Street Police Station in Montego Bay, where he was held for an hour and a half, then subsequently told he could leave but without the ganja.

This incident caused much angst within the Rastafari community, and it is one of several examples that Rastafarians consider an infringement on their constitutional rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights established in 1948 by the United Nations (UN) is an edict that outlines the basic rights and fundamental freedoms all humans are entitled, despite race, religion, or ideologies. Article 18 states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance."

This declaration is also found in Article 17 (1) of Jamaica's constitution and has been the founding argument by Rastafarians that their arrest and conviction for the sacramental use and possession of ganja is unconstitutional.

"Humanitarian principles take precedence - hence our right to practise our religion - and Rastafari religion include the use of ganja as a sacrament," said Ras Byah of the Bobo Shanti tribe.

"As far as our livity is concerned, our use of sacrament should be protected under the human rights order."

A group representing all the mansions of Rastafari known as RAGGA (Rastafari Grassroots and Ganja Cluster ) says it is seeking a meeting with the Ministry of Justice. Their objective is to re-engage the ministry around their concerns and improve communication, which they say has deteriorated over the past three years.

Also among their concerns is their economic viability in the regulated industry as herb planted for sacrament cannot be sold.


...Ganja law needs more specifics

In 2015, when ganja was decriminalised, the Amendment to the Dangerous Drug Act allowed persons 18 years or older, who are adherents to the Rastafarian faith, to cultivate and use ganja in designated spaces for sacramental purposes. The law also allows for Rastafarian events to receive an exemption from the Ministry of Justice.

However, Ras Byah says that the amendment doesn't adequately address their needs and that the law requires more specifics. He said RAGGA is offering itself as an adviser to the Government as it has solutions on how to create a more complete and equitable framework with regard to sacramental rights.

"We can identify to the Government reputable sacramental spaces. We can help establish the criteria and help create IDs and certificates to be recognised as a sacramental space," said Ras Byah.

He said this would eliminate some of the ambiguity and would be seen as a respectful observance of their sovereign right to practise their religious rituals.

The sacramental clause in the DDA, however, has caught the attention of the international community. In the 2017 Annual Report of the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board, the organisation expressed its disapproval of the sacramental clause included in Jamaica's medical ganja laws.

"The board reminds the Government of Jamaica ... that ... only the medical and scientific use of cannabis is authorised and that use for any other purposes, including religious, is not permitted," read the report.

Jamaica is also a signatory to the three major UN international drug-control conventions.

Could the UN's contradictory position be at the heart of this stalemate between the Government and Rastafarians?

Could Jamaica be struggling to find that delicate balance between preserving international relationships and being true to its people?

Neither the Ministry of Justice nor the Cannabis Licensing Authority was available for comment.




The constitutionality of Jamaica's ganja laws has been challenged in the past. One well-known case is Dennis Forsythe vs the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Attorney General in 1997. Forsythe, an attorney, had been arrested for illegal possession of marijuana and a chillum pipe at his house.

He petitioned the Supreme Court for a "declaration that his constitutional rights to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion had been infringed by the Dangerous Drugs Act 1924".

In Antigua and Barbuda, Rastafari are currently in the middle of negotiations with the Gaston Brown Government as that island constructs the legislative framework for its medical ganja industry. They, too, are demanding legislation that observes their human rights and allows them to gain economically from the industry.

Ras Furty, a RAGGA representative, says that despite the international watchdogs, he believes that the Government has the power to effect the requested change and that now presents the perfect opportunity.

"The disservice meted out to Rasta in the past has not been ameliorated, and an official apology for all of the atrocities is still not forthcoming. So now after defending ganja all these years, not only spiritually, but medicinally as well, we are demanding that our rights be written into law to not only officially recognise us, but to give us the economic leverage as well," said Ras Furty.