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).

Rasta
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.

8 thoughts on “The Use of Marijuana in the Rastafari Religion

  1. This article is hogwash, and supposes a racial link to schizophrenia instead of the obvious and recognized links with poverty and disenfranchised. i.e., this article is racist. As well the links between cannabis and schizophrenia have long been rulled out by serious science, there are no no rising rates of schizophrenia coinciding with rising rates of cannabis use. Also the amount of Rastas that do not use cannabis, is a small fraction, much smaller than say the amount of Christians who do use cannabis. Further there is a well established religious base, going back millennia for the Rasta’s use of cannabis, and many Rastas know about this…. not the author of this article however, this is a classic case of looking from the outside within.

    • This article is in no way “racist” Chris. How absurd! I think it’s quite clear from the structure of the article that it’s trying to look at “both” sides and give a balanced piece. The link between psychosis/schizophrenia and skunk in particular has NOT been ruled out definitively, either. It’s far more negligible than people thought but I think someone needs to get off their high horse and do some research into the effects of skunk and the much more potent streams of cannabis that are around today. And I say that as someone who thinks it should be fully legalized. I don’t agree with every point made here but I find it laughable how someone can find something “racist” because they personally don’t agree. Thanks Emily, I thought this was interesting.

  2. Yeah id say the racism and cannabis prohibition against our darker brothers and sisters, as well as poverty and hard drug abuse in the ghettos, with all the police abuse and brutality on top of it all… plays way more a role than cannabis “Correlation never equals Causation”, Andrea and Emily!

  3. Hi Chris and Brandon,

    Thanks for your comments, and thanks for reading Points. You both make very valid arguments, and I’d like to make sure that you know that Points has consistently been against racial profiling and the unfair enforcement of drug laws. You can see that in many of our previous posts where we show how these negative phenomenons have evolved, and how we work to expose the racist historical underpinnings of our current situation.

    In defense of Andrea’s post, however, I’d like to say that she’s simply bringing up both sides of the story. As a journalist and not a historian, Andrea’s background has trained her to discuss both sides of the coin – thus, when writing about marijuana use, she also suggests that there are negative sides to it. There is a far longer and more complicated history to both Rastafarianism as well as the phenomenon of schizophrenia in the United States, and while this article may make some jumps between the two, her ultimate argument, that “the pervasive stereotype of stoner Rastafarians is both an unwelcome, and unwarranted, misconception,” is something I think we can all agree on.

  4. “Robert Pfeifer MSW, founder of Sober College rehab center,” is regurgitating the official position of federal US agencies, propagandizing to rationalize continuity of the drug war, which is the race war, which is a for-profit industry of state-facilitated slave labor. Read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and check out this article which shows that federal US agencies have consistently lied to increase their funding: http://hemp.org/news/node/4227

    Her primary citation on the harms of cannabis is from someone whose rehab college profits by the perpetuation of drug addiction, and treating cannabis users as addicts is clearly profitable in a couple dubious ways:

    1) Firstly, there is direct profit off of those forced into rehab by employers or the legal system, simply because they use cannabis, whether or not they use lethally dangerous hard drugs or commit any other “crimes” related to their drug use. On the social costs of the rehab industry, check this out: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-us-addiction-rehab-industry-2014-08-04-52033057

    2) Unbiased studies show addiction to lethally dangerous hard drugs can be treated with cannabis, instead of methadone for instance. This recent study, for instance, shows that damage done to the brain by alcohol can be repaired by cannabis: http://www.collective-evolution.com/2013/11/22/scientists-discover-that-cannabis-may-reduce-brain-damage-caused-by-alcohol/

    So, evidently, the great moral imperative of eradicating drug addiction, which is closely correlated with poverty and familial disintegration/dysfunction, which closely correlate to the racialized war on drugs and economic disparity (Babylon), is hindered by disinformation on and prohibition of cannabis. There are also strains of cannabis which are safe for children, with a lot of CBD, with little THC, which don’t cause “highness,” and instead are purely a medicinal and remedial herb for which there we have thousands of years of therapeutic use documented in the literary and anthropological record.

    I’m not a journalist, I’m a mere student.

  5. rasta is not a religion as you would know if you acknowledged what rasta says & sing about.. its a way of life, not a religion.. which is much more important as its living something instead of just believing… rasta is a way of life that has been around since creation & pretty much all Rasta get annoyed with it being referred to as a religion.. like the holy books rasta read.. there are some before the old testament, side by side with the old testament, between the old & new testament, along side the new testament & after the new testament. There are still even religious books being written today about holy events currently happening. Religion tends to be beliefs based on historical events.. rasta is knowing of all past, present, future, living in the most natural way possible, which utilizes all 7 senses. the Coptic christians of Ethiopia are closer to rasta than christianity as they follow a form of christianity that was around about 1000 years before jesus & are also the most holy people (other than King Selassie) to walk as the keepers of the arc. King selassie was crowned ethiopia’s & isreal’s king, sharing the bloodline of menelik. Ethiopia also holds thousands of un translated stone tablets from the times of jesus. Ethiopia has always been a holy place anyway as it is where the human race comes from.

  6. The article takes as faith that cannabis has “demotivating effects,” a theory that has been disproven many times. In fact, one of the first studies to debunk “amotivational syndrome” was the Ganja In Jamaica study of the 1970s, which followed thousands of Jamaicans, both cannabis users and non users. The cannabis users in the study were more productive farm hands than their non using co workers. In Jamaica and other places, cannabis is attached to a work ethic, much like coffee is in the USA… you smoke on the job so you can be a better worker.

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