If you have had any exposure to cannabis culture, you will have seen the prominence of Rastafari iconography,Rastafari is a religious movement that has long been associated with cannabis. Their use of the herb in communal rituals has become known worldwide. This is the story of the faith, and the role cannabis plays in their beliefs.
Rastafari is a religious movement that originated in Jamaica. It was popularised around the world through reggae music. Converts like Peter Tosh and Bob Marley were particularly famous advocates. What began with very humble origins ended up spreading all over the globe. To this day, the largest populations of Rastafari live in countries as far-flung as Jamaica, Ethiopia, Botswana, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States, and for some reason, even Japan. On a global scale, there is estimated to be around one million followers, which isn't bad for a movement founded in the 1930s.
Yes, the Rastafari faith is less than a century old, yet it is already known throughout the world. It is distinctive for being caricatured as the religion that lets you smoke weed. The truth is a bit more nuanced than that, even when it comes to classifying Rastafari as a religion. Some practitioners will insist it's more of a lifestyle and philosophy toward life than a religious doctrine. It does avoid many features of organised religion, such as clergy or formal leadership. But spirituality does play a big part in its Afrocentric interpretation of Christianity and its reasons for promoting cannabis use.
Rastafarianism developed in Jamaica in the 1930s among working-class black people.
It began in part as a social stand against whites and the middle-classes, whom the Rastafarians saw as oppressors.
Among their grievances, the Rastafarians believed that by being taken to the Caribbean by slave traders they had been robbed of their African heritage, which they sought to recapture and celebrate.
The Rastafari movement, or Rasta, takes the Bible as its sacred text, but interprets it in an Afro-centric way in order to reverse what Rastas see as changes made to the text by white powers.
The movement took as its spiritual head Haile Selassie I, former Emperor of Ethiopia, who was lauded for being a black leader in the heart of Africa.
To the Rastas, Haile Selassie became Jah, or God incarnate, who would one day lead the people of African origin to a promised land.
Although Haile Salassie died in 1975, his death is not accepted by Rastafarians, who believe he will one day return.
Rastafarians also looked up to Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican socialist, whose philosophies they believed could help open the way to a new world order.
From the beginning, Rastafarianism was associated with communal living.
Leonard Howell, often called the “first Rasta,” set up the first Rastafarian commune of 5,000 people at Pinnacle, St Catherine, Jamaica.
His subsequent persecution by Jamaican authorities encapsulated for many people the decades of oppression suffered by black Africans.
From Jamaica, the Rastafari movement spread around the globe, thanks in part to the huge popularity of its most famous member, Bob Marley.
The reggae star’s lyrics were full of Rasta doctrine and encapsulated the spirit of the movement.
In addition to Marley, other Rasta symbols include dreadlocks and cannabis. Although not worn by all Rastafarians, the movement believes the hairstyle is supported in the bible.
The smoking of cannabis - commonly known as Ganja among followers - is regarded as a spiritual act, often accompanied by Bible reading.
Rastafarians believe smoking cannabis is sanctioned by the Bible, cleans the body and mind and brings the soul closer to God.
Today there are thought to be more than one million Rastafarians around the world. Some live in communes, which double as temples, where the Bible is studied and prayers are offered.
However, Rastafarianism has never been a highly organised religion, and many Rastas see it more as a culture or way of life.
CANNABIS AS SACRAMENT
Another key aspect of the Rastafari faith is their use of cannabis. Rastafari tend to avoid alcohol, tobacco, and even caffeine, claiming that these diminish a person's health and dignity. Conversely, they consider cannabis to be a sacred herb that soothes the troubled mind and allows one to reason more clearly. Rastafari practitioners will often gather in groups to pass around pipes or joints, before discussing philosophical matters in a non-combative fashion. These form part of communal ceremonies called groundings. This practice is said not only to improve reasoning and social cohesion, but one's connection with God, whom they call "Jah".
The Rastafari value reasoning against the destructive ideologies of the world. In fact, they tend to reject forms of dogmatic ideology or "isms". This is why we have not used terms like "Rastafarian" or "Rastafarianism" as these are considered offensive to them. Referring to a practitioner as a "Rasta" seems to be acceptable. Why they think cannabis helps their spiritual and mental health also goes back to the Bible. Several references to "herb" in the Bible are taken to venerate cannabis. These include Psalms 18:8 and Revelation 22:2.
HOW DID THE RASTAFARI DISCOVER CANNABIS?
The roots of the Rastafari movement are in colonial Jamaica. Although Rastafari are primarily associated with cannabis use, they wouldn't be the first religion to incorporate it. That would be Hinduism, which has many sects that incorporate the ceremonial consumption of cannabis. Positive references to cannabis in Hindu scripture are even more explicit than in the Bible. It was the Hindus who brought cannabis to Jamaica.
The British Empire forced indentured labourers in India to move to Jamaica and work alongside Jamaicans. Their sharing of the cannabis plant was very well-received by Jamaicans. The Hindi word for cannabis is "ganja", itself derived from the Sanskrit "ganjika". The name ganja caught on in Jamaica and was incorporated into Rastafari groundings. It is possible they learnt about spiritual applications of cannabis from the Hindus. There may also have been influence from the Kumina faith practised by much of the African Diaspora in Jamaica at the time. This religion believed cannabis brought one closer to one's ancestors, even to the point of being possessed by them.
Rastafari cut their own path, rejecting the ancestral veneration common in other Afrocentric religions. The Rastafari are focussed on a glorious future where Jah liberates the world from evil. This features in many other religions, as do their controversial attitudes toward homosexuality and gender roles. It is a young movement, but it has endured repression, ridicule, the death of its saviour Haile Selassie, and the death of its most famous member Bob Marley. It successfully advocated for the legal use of cannabis in ceremonies, even in countries years away from formally legalising cannabis. They have even begun to smooth things over with the Jamaican government.
CANNABIS IN JAMAICA
Throughout decades of tension with the Rastafari, the Jamaican government harshly criminalised cannabis. Internationally, Jamaica has become associated with cannabis. Its Caribbean climate is an ideal place to grow the plant, and indeed, it is often seen flourishing in the wild. As part of efforts to make amends with the Rastafari, Jamaica reconsidered its policy. Recent reforms saw the possession of cannabis decriminalised, as long as one possessed less than 2 ounces or 56.6 grams. Rastafari are completely free to use it for religious reasons. Jamaican citizens and even tourists can apply to use medical cannabis. And every Jamaican can grow five or fewer cannabis plants in their own home.