“How many of us know that the largest contingent of coolies* were brought to Jamaica, not to Guyana, Trinidad or Suriname. And they brought the ganga with them … And maybe, maybe, that is why you have complete assimilation of the races, which we don’t have in Guyana.”
It was a jump, and the speaker knew it. Hence the double maybe. But Dr Turhane Doerga, founder of the Guyana Hemp Association, was making a point. When did marijuana – which evolved in central Asia some 12,000 years ago and has been used medically, religiously and socially by people around the world for millenia – become criminalised, stigmatised and associated negatively with black people wearing dreadlocks?
That was just one of the questions asked at Global Marijuana Decriminalization And Guyana’s Indifference, a talk organised by the Guyana Rastafari Council and the University of Guyana Student Society – the final event in a four-part series entitled The Caribbean Revolution of the 21st Century.
Dr Doerga is far from the first to note the links between Rastafarism, ganga and India, but this history only now seems to be coming into mainstream public consciousness. In a recent New York Review of Books article entitled ‘The True Story of Rastafarism‘, Lucy McKeon writes about the origins of the Rastafari movement and its beliefs:
“Ganja” (an Indo-Aryan word) had originally reached Jamaica in the mid-nineteenth century by way of East Indian indentured laborers, who used the herb in their spiritual ceremonies and were brought to Jamaica to fill the labor demand created by emancipation. Howell’s Rastafari spirituality amalgamated East Indian and African customs and beliefs—an approach that incorporated ceremonial ganja-smoking with the drumming, singing, and chanting of Kumina, an Afro-Jamaican religion developed by central Africans brought to the island enslaved or, like the East Indians, indentured.
Then there’s the new documentary Dreadlocks Story, which explores between the spirituality of Jamaican Rastafarians and the Indian Hindu Sadhus.
Indentured Indians also brought ganga to British Guiana, but their usage and cultivation was tempered by colonial policies such as the 1913 Indian Hemp Ordinance. Furthermore, as Ramesh Gampat relates in his book Guyana: From Slavery to the Present: Vol. 2 Major Diseases, the British also used carefully constructed stereotypes of ganga users to demean them and dismiss their protests, beliefs and way of life as “violence” and “idle”. Sound familiar?
That attitude continues today. Although marijuana is used across the social, economic and racial divide in Guyana – even by some of our politicians, as we heard last night (no names mentioned) – the stereotype of the troublesome, criminal, lazy, black addict persists.
In her speech at the University of Guyana event, Sister Woziero Esther Gittens, secretary of the National Reparations Committee, shared stories of Rasta brothers and sisters hounded by police for their marijuana use. She recalled being arrested and imprisoned herself, and how she nearly had her locks cut off by overzealous prison guards, who did not know that this is prohibited in Guyana (a fact Sister Gittens said she was aware of having campaigned on this very issue). “Twenty years of cultivating my life would have gone” she said, noting that others have not been so lucky.
For her and others in the Rastafari movement, this – and the criminalisation of ganga – amounts to an attack on their religious freedom. “We should seek reparations from the government for the persecution of our culture,” urged Sister Gittens in her speech.
As well as being a religious and cultural matter, it’s also a medical one. Last month, a Paramakatoi farmer was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $40,500 for being in possession of almost one pound of cannabis, which he said was to make medicinal tea for his sick niece.” True or not, the medicinal properties of ganga are well documented – from easing pain and nausea to greater muscle control for those with MS.
And then there’s the economic aspect. “Metropolitan countries are making billions off it, why can’t we?” asked Sister Gittens? “You can’t talk of green economy and not plant marijuana, hemp.”
It was a point expanded on by Dr Droega, who cited the case of Colorado, which collected $88.2m in taxes from Cannabis sales in 2015. Restricted de-crimininalisation (usually of small amounts for personal use) is swiftly catching on around the world. The Netherlands, Uruguay, Spain, Portugal, and various US states to name just a few. Incredibly it was only in 2015 that Jamaica (the home of Rastafarism) finally decriminalised the possession of small amounts of ganga and the use of the herb for religious purposes. “The Babylon police used to abuse the Rastaman for smoking the herb. But the times are changing and the agitation has to stop,” a local supporter was quoted as saying in a news report.
As well as smoking or ingesting marijuana, many products can be made using hemp – which is differentiated from marijuana for various reasons, including its reduced amount of THC and a different genetic structure. Hemp can be used to make many things, from clothes and food, to paper, textiles, plastics and biofuel. It also grows quickly and, according to the Guyana Hemp Association‘s website, requires half as much water, and no pesticides, compared to cotton. Just last week, farmers from the Region 10 Industrial Hemp and Agricultural Farmers Corporation made a call for the legalisation of industrial hemp – in line with the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which permits the growth of Cannabis for exclusively industrial or horticultural purposes.
So why is Guyana so ‘indifferent’ to the changes happening around the world, as the title of the talk suggested? Speaking from the audience, Gerald Perreira, leader of the Organisation for the Victory of the People (OVP), suggested that the government was waiting for the “nod” from “The ABC countries – American, Britain and Canada.” Dr Droega made a similar point, saying “Don’t wait for them to tell you it’s ok, while they’re making money”, calling on the audience to “vote in your own people.”
AFC Chairman Nigel Hughes (who was due to appear at the talk but was not present) did compile a draft Narcotics Drug and Psychotropic Substances (Control) (Amendment) Bill in 2015, which seeks to soften the penalties for marijuana possession. However this “has been languishing on the Order Paper”, according to chartered accountants Ram & McRae, and still hasn’t made it to Parliament. Despite President David Grainger reportedly telling TV programme The Public Interest in August 2016: “I would say, even running the risk of talking out of school, that it is likely that the private use of marijuana would be given consideration in months to come.”
In her article The True History of Rastafarism, Ms McKeon notes: “…the greatest menace to the colonial order was [‘The First Rasta’ Leonard Percival] Howell’s founding of Pinnacle as an autonomous economic community financed by the cultivation of marijuana … By the late 1940s and early 1950s, at Pinnacle’s height, Howell was the biggest ganja planter in modern Jamaican history.”
If Guyana is indeed waiting for a nod of approval from its former colonial masters in Britain or its capitalist/cultural colonisers in the United States and Canada, it may be waiting a while. And by then, the hemp/marijuana industry will be established and Guyana will have to play catch up.
“The 2020 elections must be a marijuana election,” declared one audience member. Given politics in Guyana is a notoriously racially divisive matter, perhaps a pipe of peace is the way forward.
[*’coolie’ is a term used widely to refer to those of Indian descent in the Caribbean, though is considered offensive by some]