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Weed in Rastafarianism

Weed in Rastafarianism has stretched its herbal roots across the globe.

By Wendy WeedlerPublished 7 years ago 9 min read

Any true Rastafarian will tell you that it is absolutely necessary to meditate every time you smoke the herb. They always wish the herb to be used respectfully, in keeping with its inherent ability to spiritualize the state of mind. Violent or negative tendencies are exorcized by the conscious, careful smoking of the herb. A gentle overview is the aim of the smoker—cooling out.

This sacramental attitude toward marijuana is right at the heart of Rastafarianism. There was a time when the generally held image of Rasta was not exactly favorable—you know, ganja intrigue, violence, impenetrable mystical behavior, etc. Now, thankfully, the positive basis of Rasta and reggae seems to be coming to light. The heavy successes of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Third World, Max Romeo, Jahmalla, and other reggae master musicians has educated more people to the light rather than dark side of Rasta. The music's brilliant potential for power within gentleness and restraint gives us a strong clue to the deepest aspects of the whole phenomenon.

Image via Pinterest

Rasta Roots

Reggae, the Jamaican music that swept America, has its roots in the chants of the Ras Tafari, a unique religious sect which holds that the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I is the incarnation of God (Jah, i.e. Yahweh, Jehovah); that marijuana is the holy sacrament; and that repatriation to Africa and the building of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth is the goal for all blacks whose ancestors were forcibly brought to the New World as slaves. Founded in the 1930s during the height of the Back-to-Africa movement led by Marcus Garvey, the cult now numbers over 30,000 members, mostly from the poorest economic classes. The Jamaican government has actively suppressed the movement for decades; but the Rasta have continued to grow amidst, despite, and because of their wretched economic conditions, and today comprise the liveliest, most vibrant and revolutionary marijuana-oriented religious cult in the world.

Haile Selassie's death in August, 1975, did nothing to change the fundamental beliefs of the movement. As Brother Historian, secretary of the Rastafarian Movement Association in Kingston, announced on the day of Selassie's funeral, "The person of the Emperor is sacred. We Rastafarians stand firm and know that God remains the almighty, one forever that can never die and will never die."

This mystical faith in a continuing divine presence on earth is based on a literal Rastafarian interpretation of the Old Testament. Rastafarians can quote chapter and verse to show that God is black (Jeremiah 8:21), was originally Ethiopian (Psalsm 87:3-4), and will appear on earth as the Messiah, King of Kings (Revelations). In 1930, the year the sect began in Jamaica, Ras Tafari, son of Ras Makonen of Harar, was crowned King of Ethiopia, and took the title Haile Selassie, "Power of the Trinity." This event gladdened the hearts of black leaders in Jamaica who believed, as the newly crowned Emperor proclaimed, that he was the first direct descendant of David and 225th in a line of Ethiopian monarchs stretching back to the time of the Queen of Sheba.

Haile Selassie. Image via Wikipedia

Toking on God's Pipe

According to Rasta belief, the divine origin of marijuana-ganja, "wisdom weed," or simply "the herb" to the Brethren—is likewise attested in scripture: "And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth... to you it shall be for meat" (Genesis 1:12). From these ancient phrases, applied literally to modern times, has arisen the chant customarily sung before "drawing the herb," i.e., smoking ganja: "Give thanks and praises unto the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, Haile Selassie I, Jah Rastafari, the true and living God."

Cannabis use may have been introduced to Jamaica, as it seems to have been in Brazil, from Africa during the colonial slave trade. But religious marijuana use, according to Drs. Vera Rubin and Lambros Comitas in their report Ganja in Jamaica (Mouton, 1975), "was introduced to the British West Indies by indentured laborers from India, the first of whom arrived in Trinidad and Guiana in 1844 and in Jamaica in 1845." Between that time and World War I, approximately 36,000 indentured servants from India were brought to Jamaica to serve in the houses and sugarcane fields of their British masters; Conditions were so brutal that only half of them remained when indenture ended. It seems to have been during this period that much of the island, especially high in the fabled Blue Mountains, was planted surreptitiously with Cannabis indica. The legacy of India may be discerned in the words associated with marijuana in Jamaica, which are not African but Hindi: ganja, and, for the very best quality, Kali (black) ganja, the kind which in India is laid before the goddess of terror and delight. The Jamaican word for ganja pipe, chillum, is Hindi. There may even be a reflection of Shivaite sects of India in the long twisted hair, called jata in India and "dreadlocks" in Jamaica, worn by the Rastafarians, though some believe this was inspired by African tribal practice. The method of smoking the chillum (repeated hard fast pulls, expelling giant clouds of smoke between puffs) is exactly the same among Shivaites and Rastafarians; They share a principled vegetarianism; and there is a remarkable resemblance between Hindu mantra-chanting and the hypnotically powerful songs of the Rasta.

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High Notes and Low Times

If one listens carefully to commercial reggae, one can hear faint echoes of classical Indian raga and even, at times, British regimental music, along with the obvious influence of African chants. Unfortunately, Rasta music is not widely available, as the brethren do not particularly care to have outside ethnomusicologists present at their (illegal) nightlong ganja-and-chanting sessions. The closest thing available commercially is the second side of the Wailers' BURNIN' album, especially the "Rasta Man Chant":

"hear the words of the Rasta Man say Babylon you throne gone down, gone down Babylon you throne gone down..."

The Rasta determination to overthrow "Babylon" and establish their freedom to"“draw the herb" in peace is based on their revolt against centuries of enslavement in general and decades of police harassment in particular. It takes little imagination to glimpse the ferocity which greeted the rise of the movement during the 1930s, that time of worldwide depression and anti-marijuana demonology. The early Rasta leader, L.P. Howell, was charged with "sedition" for traveling around the island spreading the group's doctrine and selling cheap photos of Haile Selassie in 1934. After two years in prison, he organized a communal camp called "Pinnacle" in the Parish of St. Catherine, where several hundred families could eke out subsistence and plan their move to Ethiopia. In 1941, police smashed into Pinnacle, claiming that the residents were "narcotics" dealers, and 70 Rastas were jailed for growing ganja. In 1953, after again being released from prison, Howell returned to Pinnacle and reorganized the settlement with tighter security. The Rasta adopted the fierce appearance of "Ethiopian Warriors," with dreadlocks and beards, at this time, and the community protectively closed itself off from strangers. Leonard E. Barrett, in his book The Rastafarians: A Study in Messianic Cultismin Jamaica (University of Puerto Rico, 1968) says “Rastafarians ran down the streets of Kingston, yelling fire, brimstone and Babylon, using the most profane language ever heard in public. To the community they seemed mad... [but] their defiance of society was admired by many who secretly felt the urge to do the same, but had not the boldness to exhibit their feelings."

As the movement gained strength, fear struck deep in the hearts of plantation owners, city landlords, the police, and the government. In 1959 another Rasta leader, the Reverend Claudius Henry, incurred the wrath of the establishment when, as Time magazine put it, he "stirred an estimated 20,000 bearded cultists into a Back-to-Africa frenzy." Soon thereafter, police captured Reverend Henry with a cache of ganja, firearms, dynamite, and machetes: It was apparent that the Rastafarians were preparing for armed struggle and, even more fearfully for the police, were building a widespread popular base of support. Subsequent raids resulted in the capture of more of Henry's men, including his son, who were charged with treason and sentenced to death. In despair, the Rastas asked a team of educators from the University of the West Indies to study their doctrine and make a report to the government. The report, without whitewashing the urgency of the situation, noted that "the great majority of Ras Tafari brethren are peaceful citizens," and recommended that the Jamaican government "send a mission to African countries to arrange for immigration of Jamaicans."

Image via The Smokers Club


Astonishingly, and perhaps merely to rid themselves of the problem, the government agreed to send Rasta emissaries, accompanied by government "advisors," to Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, and other nations. The 1961 meetings were historic. The Emperor Haile Selassie himself said that Ethiopia "would always open its doors to people of African descent who wished to return." This promise had the immediate effect of cooling the rebellion in Jamaica: fat chillums of hope and kali ganja were lit in the throbbing ghettos of Trenchtown and Sligoville. For the first time, Rastafarians could walk the streets openly, and even sympathizers unwilling to grow dreadlocks sported bold caps in the colors of the Ethiopian flag, green, yellow, and red. The arrangements took time, of course, they told themselves, and when Haile Selassie visited Jamaica in 1966 he was mobbed at the airport by a jubilant crowd of thousands of Jamaicans anxious to "go home."

It was not to be. Endless delays, both in Jamaica and Ethiopia, made the Rastafarian hopes dwindle. Then in September, 1974, Haile Selassie was deposed in a military coup, and placed under house arrest where he would remain until the end of his days on earth. The Jamaicans saw their fragile dreams evaporate, along with the long-stalled negotiations. The hope for return to Africa is now largely symbolic, yet the dream of immortality goes on, mythically, in the courage of the young, who still see a chance to build the Kingdom on earth. In Jamaica, in Africa, the dream of freedom from oppression "can never die and will never die." It is carried to the youth of the world, in reggae music, this dream, this vision in the hearts of the Rasta, this yearning expressed most magnificently by a Rastafarian quoted in Ganja in Jamaica:

"I and I brethren do not take part with colour prejudice for we know that we have bad black man and bad white man too. So let all Nation be free and let righteousness exalt all Nation. That is what the Rastafarian in Jamaica stand for.""As we sat by the Rivers of Babylon, we pray all day and night for freedom to draw our herb and praise Ras Tafari. We beat our drum to catch the spirit of the Almighty God Ras Tafari. They take us as Slave down in Jamaica and put us to slave in the cane field and we beat our drum and give praises to God. We the true Rastafarian do not take part in anything which is bad. We hurt no one and we want no one to hurt us . . . ] and I brethren been drawing herb for over 50 years and it do no harm to I and I. So we would like to draw our herb in peace and let God righteousness exalt the earth and our enemies be our footstool."

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The Ever-Growing Roots of the Rasta

Marijuana is more than just a plant to get high off of to the Rastafarians. It symbolizes the struggles of their people throughout history before they came together and rose up as one. All of their deep cultural roots to marijuana points to the undeniable seriousness of their use of herb. The Rasta uses it as a meditation tool, not so much to get "high" as to go "deep." The herb brings about the necessary cooled-out state of mind that allows for personal and soulful contemplation and also for calm appraisal of any life situation. Abject living conditions and the constant lurking actuality of some form of oppression make Rastas even more respectful of marijuana. The herb gives them, and anyone potentially, an overview and an innerview, an Alpha response that makes life a markedly vital, joyful, flowing event/continuum. Lamb's bread as such is the ameliorative, Godhead herb and is food for the heart as well as the mind. Its real attraction lies in its fast power of removing resentment and fear and instilling peace and understanding.


About the Creator

Wendy Weedler

Lives in Washington D.C. Has been part of the legalization movement for decades.

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