rastas and weed

Here’s why you should be celebrating 4/21, not 4/20

Senior reporter, law & politics, DC.

Rastafarianism is a religion, an idea, a sociopolitical movement, and an international pop culture phenomenon. For adherents, it’s a black-power Abrahamic faith with a reverence for ganja inspired by reefer houses of 1920s Harlem.

There are different strains of Rastafarian belief—it’s a necessarily loose and anti-authoritarian faith—but all identify symbolically with the twelve tribes of Israel and share one prophet: Ras Tafari, the given name of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, crowned in 1930, the monarch of Africa’s only independent nation at the time.

His crowning fulfilled a prophecy, evidenced in verses in Psalms, believers say, that a king would come from Africa to lead black people everywhere—ultimately, to a return to Zion, the Promised Land in Ethiopia, which represents all of Africa. Some Rastas believe the emperor was a reincarnation of God, like Christ, and others that he was a destined emissary. Either way, the Ethiopian monarch is known to Rastas as His Imperial Majesty, or HIM, and revered universally.

The idea that the black king fulfilled a prophecy was supplied by Marcus Garvey and inspired by biblical verses. Garvey, a Jamaican writer and activist living in New York, began the black nationalist movement in the US. In 1928, he famously said, “Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand.”

Leonard Percival Howell, a Jamaican preacher who worked in Harlem reefer houses as a teenager and then opened his own shop before being deported in 1932, was swayed by Garvey’s call but dismissed from the flock. Howell rented a space for his teahouse from Garvey’s organization in New York but the latter was alarmed by the reefer smoking and ejected Howell from his building and group.

Back in Jamaica (then under colonial British rule) Howell fused Garvey’s call for empowerment with a black Abrahamic faith he called “Rastafari”—not quite Christian, replete with Jewish symbols—and went door to door preaching to poor villagers and finding followers. For upper-class islanders, however, the religion’s disdain for the status quo was frightening. Howell was arrested and imprisoned in 1933 and his doctrine was deemed devilish.

He continued to write while incarcerated, and after his release in 1936 kept gaining followers. In 1940, the preacher established Pinnacle, a community of about 1,000 Rastas who followed a special vegetarian diet, shirking seasonings but for the sacred herb, marijuana. They grew ganja among their yams and greens.

In religious rituals, discussion groups called “reasonings,” they smoked cannabis, a holy weed which they believed grew on the grave of King Solomon and conferred wisdom. Howell preached that marijuana was encouraged in the bible, for example in Genesis 1:29:

And the Earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

What was not so good, in the eyes of authorities, was the fact that Howell’s people sold weed all over the island. In 1941, he was again arrested, this time in a raid on Pinnacle’s marijuana plants.

Some Rastafarians say that a group of Howell’s guardsmen grew dreadlocks then, to symbolize their warrior status. But there’s no proof of that, at least not in photos, and Howell kept his hair short after his release in 1943. Nonetheless, locks became synonymous with Rastafarianism and with fighting the power. Raids continued through the next two decades—but the religion persisted in spreading. In 1962, when Jamaica gained independence from Britain, Rastafarianism was gaining ground with people.

On April 21, 1966, came the big day for Rastafarians. That’s when their prophet, emperor Haile Selassie, returned to Jamaica. He was greeted by an overwhelming crowd of believers at the airport, and was moved, some say to tears, by their fervor. The Ethiopian monarch—a symbol of black power and freedom—refused to walk on the red carpet rolled out for him, walking on the ground instead like a common man to the delight of Rastafarians. On that visit, he honored the religion’s leaders, awarded them a land grant in Ethiopia, and helped to give them legitimacy in the newly independent nation. The Ethiopian never said he was their messiah, not publicly, but he also didn’t deny it.

Around that time, the man who would make Rasta go global was converting to the faith. Bob Marley, the charming emissary and musician, would, in the 1970s sell the world on reggae, dreadlocks, poetic political formulations in a Jamaican accent, and of course, marijuana.

On 4/20—when Americans celebrate cannabis—there’s likely to be lots of Bob Marley and the Wailers playing as spliffs are smoked. But Rastas don’t honor 4/20, despite their love of marijuana. So in the name of a musical legend and freedom itself, smoke the holy grass on 4/21, which is celebrated by Rastafarians as Grounation Day—the return of their prophet to Jamaica.

It is a tradition. As the Jamaica Observer reported last year, Grounation Day in 1966 was a momentous occasion, with ganja in the air and the authorities in a rarely forgiving mood about marijuana. “Man a smoke herb all over the place,” Rasta Michael Henry told the paper. “I hear a police seh, ’lef dem. Fi dem day dis’.”

In other words, people were smoking weed freely and even the cops said, “let them be just this one day.”

Rastafarians know that the real marijuana holiday is April 21

The Use of Marijuana in the Rastafari Religion

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Andrea Jones, a journalist interested in issues of alcohol and drug addiction in youth.

Rastafari: What comes to mind when you see the word? Jamaica? Dreadlocks? Bob Marley? Chances are one of the first things that comes to mind is marijuana. Culturally entrenched with the Rastafari movement since it began in the 1930s, marijuana – or ganja, as it’s more commonly called by Rastas – is considered sacred and is often referred to as the wisdom weed or holy herb.

The ‘Healing Herb’ of the Nations

So how did ganja come to play such an important role within the Rastafari religion? Rastas believe that the Tree of Life mentioned in the Bible is the 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).

There’s more to Rastafari marijuana use than you may think. Image by Nicolas Alejandro Street Photography.

Despite what many think, Rastas actually condemn the use of marijuana simply to get high. Instead, it is usually used within religious ceremonies in a highly ritualised manner in order to enhance feelings of unity and help generate visions of a spiritual and soothing nature. Rastafari “reasoning sessions” are religious meetings that involve group meditation, and marijuana is used to help the follower go into a trance-like state. The marijuana is usually smoked in a pipe (or “chalice”) and a short prayer is always recited before it is smoked:

“Glory be to the father and to the maker of creation. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be World without end.”

Reasoning sessions are very important religious rituals for Rastas – it’s a time for them to come together to debate living according to the Rastafari outlook. The effects of smoking marijuana allow the user to reach a sort of “cosmic consciousness,” a state where they become closer to “Jah” (God) and can see the truth of the world more clearly.

Religious Freedom vs Drug Smuggling Corporations

One of the most common misconceptions about the Rastafari religion is that it centers on getting high, the insinuation among some people being that it’s just an excuse to smoke a lot of pot. In the 1970s, 60 Minutes – the most watched news program in the USA – portrayed Rastafarianism as nothing more than a drug-smuggling business using religion to mask its real activity: the import of illegal drugs.

These negative outlooks have been very damaging for Rastafarians, and many have even been forced to defend their religion in court. Rastafari believe that marijuana laws are an affront to God as well as an obstruction to their religious freedom, and the fact that marijuana is illegal has meant the Rastafari religion has become unfairly tainted as a result.

“Their argument is that ganja is a natural, not a man-made, substance, given by God to be used by mankind as mankind sees fit, the same way that He provides other herbs and bushes,” a report by the National Commission on Ganja states. “As a natural substance, ganja does not even have to be cultivated. Spread by birds and other vectors, it grows wild. It therefore cannot be eradicated. God created other herbs but none of these is subject to the prohibition imposed by the law.”

While programs like 60 Minutes implied that the determination of many Rastafari to continue smoking marijuana is a sign of willful disobedience, this is generally incorrect. Part of the Rasta belief system is the idea that it is wrong to worship money-orientated institutions; their word for this existing establishment is “Babylon.” In their eyes, the ban on God-given plants is just another sign of the immoral nature of Babylon and a way to exercise an authority that no one has the right to possess.

In this sense, the bold resistance by many Rastafari to laws and establishment is not just civil defiance but more of a reflection of their religious beliefs. The Archbishop of Kingston has been outspoken in his belief that ganja should not be illegal. He argues that there should be no limits on the quantity one person could possess, and that he fully supports “conscientious use” for religious reasons. This is echoed by the National Commission on Ganja chairman Barry Chevannes: “Ganja gives spiritual benefits. It helps [users] meditate and get in touch with their God. It helps them find a peaceful, contemplative inner voice.”

A Self-Destructive Pleasure?

While a generic stereotype of Rastafari is that they just sit around smoking pot and not doing much else, marijuana is known for its demotivating effects – so how much truth is there in this? Rastas would say not much: they believe that ganja alters a user’s consciousness, ideals and objectives but only insofar as it removes the urge to pursue a Babylonian view of success. Instead, marijuana allows them to see past the world of material possessions and self-destructive pleasures.

But what of these self-destructive pleasures? Could smoking marijuana not be classified fairly accurately as a self-destructive pleasure as well? Aside from the damaging physical effects smoking marijuana has on the body, it is also linked to increased risk of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, and can affect brain chemistry so gravely that it’s believed to trigger schizophrenia. Some studies have shown that diagnoses of schizophrenia or psychosis are over three times more common in African American people; if this is correct then the detrimental side-effects of smoking marijuana could be exacerbated further.

Robert Pfeifer MSW, founder of Sober College rehab center, says that the dangers of marijuana are hugely underestimated. “The idea that marijuana is harmless is both prevalent and unfortunate,” Pfeifer says. “Most young adults enter treatment for drug and alcohol addiction under the misconception that marijuana is a harmless, non-addictive substance. This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth. Memory issues, attention, concentration and coordination issues and cognitive impairments are just some of the by-products of their use.”

Pfeifer’s sentiments evidently resonate with the many Rastafarians who choose not to smoke ganja, so it’s clear that the health implications are not going unheeded. While the individual use of marijuana may come down to personal opinion, it’s evident that the pervasive stereotype of stoner Rastafarians is both an unwelcome, and unwarranted, misconception.

Editor's Note: This post is brought to you by Andrea Jones, a journalist interested in issues of alcohol and drug addiction in youth. Rastafari: What comes to mind when you see the word? Jamaica? Dreadlocks? Bob Marley? Chances are one of the first things that comes to mind is marijuana. Culturally entrenched with the Rastafari… ]]>