“Excuse Me While I Light My Spliff”: An Examination of the Caribbean’s Involvement in Marijuana Production and the Drug Trade

By Jasmine Homer

The Caribbean has experienced a long and complicated history with countries and global financial institutions who seek to maintain control over the region. While it is true that the era of traditional colonialism came to an end once Caribbean countries attained independence, the era of neo-colonialism immediately followed when power transferred to the hegemonic nations, the United States and the United Kingdom, alongside international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB), and the World Trade Organization (WTO). The Caribbean was unable to combat this transfer of power and claim it for themselves because the former colonizers had exhausted all of the riches and natural resources of the land. Instead, the Caribbean is characterized as a region in-dependence, reliant on loans from the IMF and WB including instructions on how to govern.

The authority of the neo-colonial powers is so embedded throughout the region that the idea that the elected governments of Caribbean countries have any real influence over the affairs of their nations is purely a fantasy. The loans they had been forced to take out came with Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), which would allegedly aid development in the region. However, judging from the grossly high level of poverty and lack of internal development that plagues the region, it has been proven that such policies are in fact detrimental to the development of the Caribbean – they allow for the continued exploitation of the region and its people. Beneficial trade agreements with other countries have been eradicated in the name of free trade, SAPs set up by the IMF keep the inflow of money to a minimum, and the unreasonably high interest rates on loans prevent Caribbean governments from investing in public services and industries to improve the lives of their citizens. Citizens are often forced to go to extreme measures in order to make enough money just to survive, which includes participating in the lucrative and dangerous drug economy.

This essay will examine the impact that drugs have on Caribbean economies, the efforts made by neo-colonial agents to dismantle the alternative economy in the region, and the significance of marijuana to aspects of Caribbean culture. I will begin with a discussion on the significance of ganja consumption to the Rastafarian movement and claim that state regulation of ganja would challenge the ideology of this religion that denounces the restrictions placed on the natural world by Babylon. I will then provide a historical account of the banana industry and argue that its demise forced farmers to seek out a new cash crop to sell, leading to the widespread production of marijuana throughout a large portion of the region. I will also touch on the subject of cocaine and heroin trafficking as a noteworthy source of income for the GDP of certain Caribbean countries that form the passage between Latin America and the US and Europe. However, the main focus will be on marijuana because it is a widely used substance within the region and its criminalization is currently being debated. In contrast, harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin are not used as widely. Finally, I will examine the influence that drug ‘dons’ have on Jamaican politics and how their bribery undermines the democracy of the nation, as well as their beneficial economic impact on impoverished garrison communities for which the State cannot provide. I will argue that the drug industry has become the last remaining industry through which the Caribbean can accumulate wealth, but the global community will continually work to shut it down, forcing Caribbean governments to choose between satisfying the neo-colonial powers and providing a means to escape poverty for a large portion of its citizens.

The Rastafarian movement, originating in Jamaica, is based on the rejection of white supremacy, industrialism and capitalism, and the glorification of the self-reliant peasant past in the Caribbean. Rastas are committed to using things in their natural state and emphasizing the harmony between humans and nature. This commitment is demonstrated through their reliance on vegetarian (Ital) food and the rejection of artificially produced goods, including tobacco, alcohol, and drugs (Jaffe, 2010, p. 32). Ganja is not considered a drug, but rather a holy herb that is smoked in the name of God. A Rastaman interviewed by Dr. Chevannes offered the following explanation:

“The Rastaman in his philosophy is conscious about God. He is the temple of God – the Rastaman, not this building. It is within us He dwells, His energy. So we become an instrument of Him, thereby we show Him the divine work of us. So we would burn this fragrant incense within this temple unto Him, the head, the divine, the Highest Thought of Man, to stimulate this inner being above all this [that] you call political and them thing,” (Hall, 2010).

Marijuana consumption was a regular practice for the peasants before they started their daily work on the plantations, so much so that “the first taking of the spliff was a sign that a youth was ready to start his life’s work in the cane fields,” (Benard, 2007, p. 96). It originally went uncontested by the plantation owners because it did not affect the amount nor the quality of work completed by the peasants. But when ganja became identified as a symbol of resistance, it took on a new meaning for both parties. The peasantry resisted subservience to outside economic forces during colonialism and the transition to capitalism by protecting elements of their society that these outside forces sought to eradicate. This included dreadlocks, beards, communalism, and marijuana (Benard, 2007, p. 92). In order for Rastas to uphold the protection of these symbols of resistance, each was given a biblical origin and became sanctified. This process expressed contempt for Babylon, the Western model of modernity, and the economic and societal values its agents sought to impose on Jamaicans, while simultaneously promoting the supremacy of the African motherland and the legitimacy of Emperor Haile Selassie 1 of Ethiopia as their saviour. After marijuana was criminalized in 1954 at the urging of the US, it became necessary to make it a “sacred form of resistance,” and to quote biblical passages that approved man’s access to all herbs of the earth (Benard, 2007, p. 97). Following its sanctification, any arrests made or harassment over ganja was expressed by Rastas as an instance of Babylon keeping the truth from the people, since smoking ganja and participating in sessions was said to reveal the truth.

The targeting of ganja and the legitimacy of the Rastafarian movement increased the popularity of the religion among youths around the world. By identifying with African liberation movements, it gained legitimacy and when an independent Jamaica joined the UN and associated with independent nations in Africa, “the Rastafari could no longer be seen as a lunatic fringe” (Chevannes, 2004, p. 71). The religion gained popularity even in Babylon, headed by musicians such as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, who could be seen smoking spliffs and defying police orders, which greatly influenced youths to do the same and challenge the illegal status of ganja. Although the booming support of Rastafarianism has calmed down since then, the demand for ganja has not. Production throughout the Caribbean increased due to heightened demand from the US, even with the US and Jamaican states cracking down on it (Chevannes, 2004, p. 72).

Marijuana is largely grown on small plots of land amongst other personal crops, so it is difficult for the state to successfully regulate its production and eradicate personal supplies. Marijuana production for medicinal purposes is state regulated in many countries, and if the Jamaican government were to successfully regulate all production, this industry would follow the same suit as others – undermined by larger markets offering a cheaper product and unaffordable for the majority of Caribbean peoples. Forbidding Rastafari from growing their own ganja would also violate one of the basic premises of the Rastafarian movement, specifically their dedication to self-reliance (Jaffe, 2010, p. 32). Taking away ganja production would take away the Rastafari’s existence, both spiritually and economically. The legalization of marijuana has gained global support in recent years, especially for medicinal purposes. However, the issue remains that many people who smoke ganja in the Caribbean are not Rastafarians. For the reason that it remains an illegal substance, any justification made by Caribbean governments for small-scale marijuana production will be rejected by the neo-colonial powers and subject to sanctions. However due to the size of the market and considering marijuana is the last remaining cash crop from which producing Caribbean countries can greatly benefit, I ask, should the governments abide by the goals of neo-colonial powers to eradicate the crop and surrender their chance at economic redemption?

I consider marijuana to be the last promising cash crop in the Caribbean since the undermining of the booming banana industry in recent decades. Between the 1950s and 1993, banana producing countries, including Jamaica and the Windward Islands (Dominica, Grenada, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG)) enjoyed a near-monopoly position in the UK market, protected from Latin American competition (Fridell, 2010, p. 287). Production in the Windward Islands accounted for over one-third of total employment and between 50 to 70 percent of all export earnings by 1992 (Fridell, 2010, p. 288). With the signing of the Single European Act in 1993, the establishment of the WTO in 1995, and intense pressure from the US in support of their own Chiquita bananas, the UK could no longer hold favouritism towards Caribbean bananas and instead had to open up their markets to cheaper Latin American crops. The Caribbean was unable to compete with their large-scale competitors because plots of land were very small, run by families, used minimal pesticides so the crop was not aesthetically perfect, and significantly more expensive than those from Latin America. With the global commitment to free trade, the export quota dropped in the Caribbean and families had to turn to other forms of work in order to survive, often abandoning their crops entirely. The number of farmers in SVG declined by 85 percent by 2007 (Fridell, 2010, p. 289).

Other industries in the Caribbean also suffered immensely from free trade policies. The textile industry in Jamaica declined from US$300M in the mid-1990s to US$7.5M in 2005, forcing the closure of many production plants (Ransford, 2009, p. 153). Products from Mexico, China, and Central America were preferred due to the significantly cheaper costs of finished goods maintained by free trade agreements, while the cost of production in Jamaica increased due to heightened levels of crime, deterring foreign investors (Ransford, 2009, p. 153). With a significant decline in the number of available jobs, many people, especially the young and poor, had to turn to less favourable sources of income, including the drug industry.

Griffith (1995) explains that the Caribbean can benefit from the drug industry because the number of people that are “employed”, directly or indirectly, runs into the tens of thousands (p. 290). Jobs on the illicit market include production, trafficking, and money laundering, while those on the countermeasures side include policing, customs agents, and those in other agencies. Although it is difficult to record concrete data on the number of people involved in illicit activities, about 6000 small-scale farmers were said to be involved in marijuana production in Jamaica alone during the 1980s, bringing over US$1B into the economy. Marijuana exports during this decade surpassed all other exports, including bauxite, sugar, and tourism (Griffith & Monroe, 1995, p. 358). Belize also profited greatly during the 1980s with exports bringing in US$350M annually, making the country the fourth largest supplier of marijuana in the world following Jamaica. During the 1990s, SVG’s crop accounted for 55 percent of marijuana consumed within the Caribbean, bringing US$10M into their economy, representing 3 percent of GDP. It also generated an average income of US$85 for every Vincentian (Platzer et al., 2004, p. 196). Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago are also major contributors to the marijuana industry while citizens of smaller islands are known to produce their own personal supplies.

Together, the drug industry in these countries generates an estimated $3.3B annually, representing 3.1% of GDP for the entire region (Hillebrand, 2004, p. 189). However, due to larger producers entering the market, the value of Caribbean marijuana has declined by 80 percent since the 1980s, replaced by high-quality Mexican and Moroccan crops (Nanton, 2004, p. 128). Since 2000, marijuana production has represented only 13 percent of the Caribbean’s drug market, and Caribbean imports have accounted for less than 2 percent of the UK market. Jamaican exports continue to bring in about US$160M, but this is a sharp decline from the boom in the 1980s (Platzer et al., 2004, p. 196). With the Caribbean’s unemployment rate of over 17 percent and very limited upward mobility, many people resort to drug dealing as a means to escape poverty. Moreover, with regional marijuana production being overshadowed by that of other countries, desperate individuals are left with even fewer sources of income and are forced to turn to more risky tasks. It is clear that the Caribbean pattern of early exploitation of a cash crop followed by its demise as larger producers enter the market is unfolding once again.

Harder drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, are not produced in the Caribbean but are heavily trafficked through the region from Colombia and neighbouring Latin American countries to the US and the UK. Jamaica is a major transshipment hub due to a number of factors including: its convenient geographical location; its lengthy and difficult-to-patrol coastline; a high volume of tourist travel and airline traffic; a struggling economy that encourages marijuana cultivation; and a large at-risk youth population with inadequate educational and employment opportunities who engage in crime (INCSR, 2014). Coincidentally, free trade zones have also had the consequence of allowing 40 to 50 percent of the cocaine that passes through the Caribbean to do so undetected due to a lack of customs controls (Platzer et al., 2004, p. 213). Many other Caribbean islands share these features and have also been identified as transshipment points. Since 2000, cocaine has replaced marijuana as the most profitable illicit drug, accounting for 85 percent of the total drug market in the region (Hillebrand, 2004, p. 189). In 2001, Kingston, Jamaica was at the centre of a US$3-3.6B crack-cocaine trafficking network, accounting for about 40 to 50 percent of GDP that year (Clarke, 2006, p. 433). Combined with marijuana production, the drug industry can account for between 20 and 65 percent of GDP of Caribbean countries (Hillebrand, 2004, p. 189).

Government efforts to eradicate marijuana crops, cease trafficking, and lower the crime rate have been spirited and largely effective, but not conclusive. Since 1985, the government of Belize has successfully diminished the volume of marijuana crops through aerial eradication and by hand when the plants are in close proximity to houses and other crops (Griffith & Monroe, 1995, p. 358). Jamaican efforts were somewhat less successful, with 456 hectares out of the goal of 1000 hectares of ganja destroyed in 1993. This shortfall is due to the efforts of farmers to protect their crop – ganja plants were increasingly planted amongst other crops and in inaccessible areas, such as the side of a mountain. There was more controversy surrounding aerial eradication in Jamaica because marijuana accounted for such a large source of income, allowing farmers to survive when deprived of a licit crop to sell. This is a major ongoing debate, but pressures from the US and international financial institutions with heavy influence over the affairs of the Caribbean have forced the heads of state to join the global campaign to eliminate unregulated drug production at the expense of their most vulnerable citizens.

Farmers often get trapped in the drug industry because it is a cash-based economy with little opportunity to save funds or plan an exit strategy. Once the crop is sold, farmers cannot deposit the funds in a bank without being suspected of trafficking, and storing it on their property offers no protection from robbers. As a result, they resort to binge spending and living well for a few months, after which they must go back to living as paupers once the money runs out (Klein, 2004, p. 46). For the reason that they cannot save, they become trapped in this cycle of binge buying and instability, and cannot successfully break out on their own. Since 1988, Jamaica has been running a rehabilitation project for marijuana farmers which has been successful in providing alternative income-earning activities (Griffith & Monroe, 1995, p. 372). Griffith and Monroe (1995) explain that a similar project, Alternative Systems for an Illegal Crop, was in the preliminary stages as of 1995 and would provide farmers with licit crops to sell. While earnings would not be as high as those from marijuana production, the risk factor would be removed and income would be stable, making this an attractive alternative to farmers (p. 372). It is widely agreed upon by scholars that in order for governments to successfully eliminate the incentive for involvement in drugs, it must be treated as a developmental issue in the region with countermeasures focusing on structural and functional changes, rather than treating it as a criminal offense (Griffith, 1995, p. 299; Griffith & Monroe, 1995, p. 358; INCSR, 2014; Sanders, 2003, p. 389).

Successfully applying countermeasures to drug trafficking in the Caribbean is very costly but there is immense pressure from the global community to do so. Therefore, governments are forced to syphon their already scarce financial resources into combatting drugs, leaving other public services, such as education, health care, and housing projects largely unfunded and underdeveloped (Griffith, 1995, p. 296). Pressure can come in the form of hefty sanctions from other states when drugs are found onboard Caribbean airlines or ships going through customs. Between 1989 and 1991, Air Jamaica was fined US$37M for illegal drugs found onboard its planes entering the US (Griffith, 1995, p. 296). The fines were reduced, however, to US$3M with the agreement that the Jamaican government would use the rest of the money to improve security at its international airports.

Licit markets have also suffered due to the common practice of hiding drugs within cargo that is exported to other countries. For example, the garment manufacturer, Hanes, is the largest in Jamaica. Following the discovery of 200 pounds of marijuana in a shipment of apparel from Jamaica in 1994, Hanes suspended all shipments from the country for months (Griffith, 1995, p. 294). This left hundreds of people without work and affected the country’s GDP. Similarly, these situations are not uncommon throughout other Caribbean countries involved in the drug trade.

Social instability, political corruption, and the large monetary rewards for participating in the drug trade have made it an attractive activity for vulnerable youths living in ghettos for whom social mobility through licit markets remains out of reach. Recruitment into gangs is fuelled by the deprivation of the ghetto and the pressure to escape from poverty by whatever means necessary (Clarke, 2006, p. 435). Many young men and women become drug mules, concealing drugs on or inside their person to transport the product to other countries. They risk discovery as they pass through customs and can face lengthy prison sentences, but the subsequent monetary gain outweighs the associated risk. Young men are also recruited to become gunmen and risk their lives to protect the interests of drug dons in the region.

Apart from deprivation, people are also motivated by greed and acquisitive materialism. Given the lucrativeness of the drug trade, the political sphere is largely susceptible to corruption (Griffith, 1995, p. 291). Bribery is a popular tactic used by drug dons in order to protect their interests and with two pounds of cocaine valued at one million Jamaican dollars in 1995, even a high court judge could be paid off (Griffith & Monroe, 1995, p. 369). Corruption permeates all ranks and is endemic throughout the Caribbean. Police officers are frequently dragged into the illicit side of the drug trade and have been known to protect drug dealers, their supplies, and their supply routes. Customs officials turn a blind eye to narcotics smuggled through shipments of goods. Even politicians can be dissuaded from enacting certain legislation that may risk successfully cutting off the drug trade from the Islands (Griffith & Monroe, 1995, p. 369). The bargaining power of drug dons rivals that of political officials, leading to the creation of mutually beneficial long-standing relationships (Platzer et al., 2004, p. 210). The influence that drug lords have over the internal affairs and policy implementations of the country in which they operate can also be beneficial for citizens who live in impoverished areas. As Caribbean governments are forced to spend large portions of their budgets on drug trade countermeasures, they lack the resources necessary to improve the lives of the people living in ghettos. It is common practice for drug lords to fulfil social welfare needs in these areas by funding school programs, doctors and nurses, sporting programs, and churches, as well as provide employment (Griffith, 1995, p. 292). As a result, community members protect them from discovery and capture from security agents. Jamaican don Delroy “Uzi” Edwards, political gunman turned drug dealer in the US, was found guilty of 42 charges, including six murders. Yet members of his community described him as a “good man”, always looking after his people, sending back “food and clothes for the kids and when he came back [to Jamaica], he always handed out money and treats,” (Sieves, 2002, p. 84) This clientelist relationship is maintained with both parties offering some form of protection, while simultaneously undermining the authority politicians have over these constituents (Sieves, 2002, p. 82).

Exemplary of the mutually beneficial relationship between don and politician is the existence of garrison constituencies in Jamaica. Dating back to the colonial period, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the Peoples National Party (PNP) encouraged activists to use violence in order to undermine the efforts of the other, and created housing communities for the most impoverished citizens in order to secure their political support. Eventually, these housing communities became one-party garrison communities and gangs were recruited to become “electoral enforcers” during the 1960s and 1970s (Clarke, 2006, p. 436). Dons that became community leaders controlled the dolling out of resources in order to encourage residents to vote for a certain politician. In return, the politician, if elected, would turn a blind eye to the dons’ line of work (Henry-Lee, 2005, p. 96). Politicians became “prisoners, hostages of garrison politics” since it is the don and not the politician that maintains authority over the residents. Therefore, for a politician to anger a don would be political suicide, since dons have the power to turn entire constituencies against them and encourage civil unrest (Henry-Lee, 2005, p. 97). For example, when the Jamaican don, Zekes, was arrested in September 1998, a massive demonstration in Kingston ensued, lasting two days (Henry-Lee, 2005, p. 96). Political authority has been undermined in Jamaica because state elites are unable to provide for the most vulnerable citizens to lift them out of poverty. Meanwhile, not only can the dons provide material resources, they can also provide protection and an opportunity to travel for those who enter the trade (Sieves, 2002, p. 84).

Corruption, narcotics trafficking, and the subsequent crime undermines democratic governance, so much so that Griffith and Monroe (1995) have identified a new form of democracy in the Caribbean – “Narco-democracy” (p. 369). The persistence of such crippling corruption is a main reason why the drug industry has not yet successfully been eradicated from the Caribbean – too many individuals with the power to enact laws and legislation have personal interest in its protection. The drug trade also benefits ordinary citizens, providing a source of income that has the potential to lift them out of poverty and even improve the GDP of Caribbean countries. Since the dismantling of the booming banana industry in recent decades, thousands of farmers throughout the region were left without a substitute licit cash crop on which to profit. Structural adjustment policies and the implementation of free trade zones have also left the Caribbean people with very few job opportunities through which they can increase their wealth. Thousands of people believe that the benefits of drug trafficking outweigh the risks. I believe that this sentiment epitomises the severity of the structural issues that undermine development in the Caribbean.

The illegal status of marijuana for recreational use is currently being debated around the world. Some US states have passed legislation to legalize small quantities, and Jamaica just passed similar legislation as well. While this would decrease crime and the number of incarcerated persons convicted of marijuana possession, I predict that Caribbean economies will suffer further as larger producers will take the opportunity to monopolize the market. The illicit trade of marijuana may be a necessary precondition for Caribbean economies to flourish, so until it is legalized, Caribbean governments should lessen surveillance on the production and trafficking of marijuana. Marijuana is significant to certain aspects of Caribbean culture, including the Rastafarian movement, thus to take away marijuana from the region would effectively take away this aspect of culture and much-needed income.


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Sieves, Amanda. 2002. “Changing Patrons, from Politicians to Drug Don”. Latin American Perspectives 126(29): 66-89.

– – – – – – –

DSC_1878My name is Jasmine Homer and I am a 5th year student at the University of Toronto, soon to be graduating with an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree. I majored in Diaspora and Transnational Studies and minored in Caribbean Studies and Sociology. It was only in my 3rd year that I was able to take some Caribbean Studies courses and I immediately fell in love with the discipline! Being of Caribbean descent, I truly value the education my Professors provided me about my own people and heritage. I became particularly interested in the challenges that permeate the Caribbean’s socioeconomic and political landscape, as well as the diaspora. I feel like I have acquired a unique outlook on issues that affect people of colour in Toronto and other metropolitan areas that I plan to employ in my future endeavors. My ultimate goal is to tackle these issues head on and improve the status of Caribbean-Canadians, along with the socioeconomic barriers they face.

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