Mosiyah Tafari drummed and sang psalms with other Rastafari in a ballroom where the smoke of incense mixed with the fragrant scent of marijuana – which his faith considers sacred.
The ceremony in Columbus, Ohio, marked the 91st anniversary of the coronation of the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, whom Rastafari venerates as their savior. For hours, the group played traditional Nyabinghi music on their most important holy day.
â€œCannabis is something that puts you in touch with the spiritual side of life in the physical body,â€ said Tafari, a member of the Columbus-based Rastafari Coalition, which hosted the event.
“It is important for Rastafari because we follow the traditions of the scriptures and we see that cannabis is good.”
For Rastafari, ritualistic smoking of marijuana brings them closer to the divine. But for decades, many have been incarcerated for their cannabis use. As public opinion and politics continue to shift in the United States and around the world towards the legalization of medicinal and recreational drugs, Rastafarians call for broader easing to reduce persecution and ensure freedom of worship. .
â€œIn this system, they’re very focused on, ‘Oh, we can make a lot of money, we can sell these medicine cards, we can sell this ganja,’ but what about the people who have been persecuted? What about people who have been sent to jail, imprisoned, even killed, â€said Ras Nyah, a music producer from the US Virgin Islands and member of the Rastafari coalition.
â€œWe need to sort out these issues before we get too far ahead of ourselves,â€ said Nyah, who attended the ceremony wearing a Rastafarian-colored tracksuit of red, green and gold.
The Rastafarian faith is rooted in 1930s Jamaica, developing as a response from blacks to white colonial oppression. The beliefs are a mixture of Old Testament teachings and a desire to return to Africa. Rastafarian followers believe that the use of marijuana is directed in biblical passages and that the â€œholy herbâ€ induces a meditative state. The faithful smoke it as a sacrament in chalice pipes or cigarettes called â€œspliffsâ€, add it to vegetarian stews and place it in fires as a holocaust.
â€œGanjaâ€, as marijuana is known in Jamaica, has a long history in this country and its arrival predates the Rastafarian faith. Indentured servants from India brought the cannabis plant to the island in the 19th century, and it gained popularity as a medicinal herb.
It began to be more widely accepted in the 1970s, when Rastafarian and reggae culture was popularized by music icons Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, two of the religion’s most famous representatives. Tosh’s 1976 hit, Legalize It, remains a rallying cry for those pushing to legalize marijuana.
Rastafarian followers in the United States, many of whom are black, say they have suffered both racial and religious profiling by law enforcement as a result of their ritualistic use of cannabis.
Tosh’s youngest son Jawara McIntosh, a singer and marijuana activist who performed under the stage name Tosh1, was serving a six-month sentence for possession after police say they found more than 65 pounds in his car rental, when he was attacked in a New Jersey jail in 2017 and was left in a coma. He passed away last year.
The attack prompted his sister Niambe McIntosh, the youngest daughter of Peter Tosh, who was a teacher in Boston at the time, to advocate for criminal justice reform and to launch a campaign to fight the stigma surrounding cannabis and support those affected by its ban.
â€œI realized her story had to be shared because no family should everâ€¦ face these harsh consequences on a plant,â€ said McIntosh, who also heads the Peter Tosh Foundation, which advocates for legalization.
The so-called war on drugs declared by President Richard Nixon more than five decades ago has prompted an increase in anti-possession laws, including tougher penalties.
The negative impacts of the war on drugs have, for years, prompted calls for reform and abolition from mostly left-wing elected officials and advocates of social justice. Many of them say that in order to start unrolling or defeating the war on drugs, all narcotics must be decriminalized or legalized, with science-based regulation.
â€œWe originally founded the Peter Tosh Foundation with the ‘Legalize It’ initiative to promote the science, the spiritual benefits of cannabis,â€ McIntosh said, â€œbut also recognizing that those who have been harmed by prohibition should be most prominent. of this new booming activity. ”
The concern is shared by other US-based Rastafarians as companies seek to invest in and profit from recreational and medical cannabis.
â€œMaybe take some of these finances, these millions, billions and trillions of dollars, and put them back into brothers and sisters who have been in jail for a long time,â€ Tafari said.
â€œInvesting in our communities that have been damagedâ€¦ maybe allow some Rastafari to be part of these business efforts as well. ”
Changing public opinion and policies on cannabis have led countries like Canada, Malawi and South Africa to relax laws in recent years.
Although it remains federally illegal in the United States, lawmakers from Oregon to New York have passed a series of laws legalizing cannabis in one-third of US states.
A Gallup poll released last year indicated that 68% of Americans support the legalization of marijuana – double the approval rate in 2003. In mid-November of this year, Republican lawmaker Nancy Mace of Caroline South has introduced a law to Congress that, if passed, would decriminalize cannabis. at the federal level – a barrier cited in many states that have chosen not to pursue legalization on their own. But that wouldn’t change restrictions at the local level, meaning states would still determine their own marijuana laws.
In Jamaica, authorities gave the green light to a regulated medical cannabis industry and decriminalized possession of small amounts of the herb in 2015. The country also recognized the sacramental rights of the Rastafari over their sacred plant.
â€œWe can access some type of connection with creation, and ultimately it is the sacramental gift that we seek to defend,â€ said Jahlani Niaah, senior lecturer in cultural and Rastafarian studies at the University of Jamaica in the West Indies.
Jamaicans are now allowed up to five plants per household for personal use only. But Niaah said that did not prevent run-ins with the police.
â€œThe Rastafari have had various challenges where they have had herbs confiscated and disappeared in police custody and continue to be abused in claiming a sacramental right,â€ he said.
“There is a real slippage between pen and practice.”
Jamaican Justice Minister Delroy Chuck said in a statement that “cases of perceived discrimination are unfortunate,” but the government continues to facilitate equality and inclusion in the legal system.
â€œIn fact, there have been and always have been several awareness sessions since the legislation was established,â€ Chuck said. â€œThese include awareness sessions with our law enforcement agencies. ”
Other Jamaican Rastafarians fear they have been excluded from the booming sector.
“People who went to jail, who had to get on and off police and police helicopters, did not have the financial means to get involved in the medical ganja industry,” Ras Iyah said. V, a Rastafarian advocate and former Jamaica’s Cannabis member. Licensing authority. In 1982 he was convicted, served a short sentence and paid a fine for possession of cannabis.
When the Jamaican government launched a program in 2017 to help â€œtraditionalâ€ ganja producers make the transition to the legal industry, it hoped it could help the Rastafarian community. But today he is “very disappointed with the way it is going. The vast majority of our ganja growers cannot participate because they have no land.”
Setting up a one-acre cannabis farm following guidelines set out by Jamaican law can cost thousands of dollars, he said.
â€œThe cannabis industry has now been taken out of the hands of the Rastafari and traditional ganja farmers and placed in the hands of the rich,â€ he said. “It makes us very bitter because we don’t see any justice in it.”
AP reporter Emily Leshner contributed to this report.