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).
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.