Jamaica’s Role In The Legal Marijuana Industry

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Almost thirty nine years ago, the Washington Post on November 10, 1980 carried an article headlined; Offbeat Church, Outgrowth of Marijuana Trade, Prospers on Island. The island referenced was Jamaica. For background, the church in question was the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church.

The Coptics claimed marijuana was the church’s holy sacrament. However, they were more than a religious sect; they were heavily involved in the illegal export of marijuana from Jamaica to the USA. In 1979, the church’s leadership was indicted in Florida for smuggling more than 100 tons of marijuana into the United States during preceding years.


The church’s leadership and spokesmen were white Americans; among them were Thomas F. Reilly Jr., known as Brother Louv. According to him the Coptics own 10,000 acres of Jamaican land. The majority of that land was under cultivation. With that as a backdrop, Reilly, ensconced in his mansion on Miami’s Star Island posited to the Washington Post that, “Ganja saved Jamaica from communism.” He further added, “Who’s going to save it tomorrow?” “The Drug Enforcement Administration?” I doubt it. . . . “If the DEA gives money to Jamaica, the people don’t see that. We’re trying to feed the people of Jamaica.” He further added, “The people are going to look for something nonpolitical to put their faith in. They’re going to see the ganja man and he’s going to lead them to the Pearly Gates.” Well, opportunity beckons thirty nine years later.

Historically, Jamaica has played a dominant role in the illegal exportation of the plant which is now viewed as a super drug in the fight against numerous illnesses afflicting mankind. In a recently published analysis, the reputable market research firm Grand View Research, Inc; estimated that the global legal marijuana market will reach USD 66.3 billion by the end of 2025. That’s six years from now. That estimation begets the question of what will be Jamaica’s share of that anticipated financial/economic windfall. Further, how prepared are we, as a nation, to capitalize on our world renown ganja product? In its global analysis of medicinal marijuana market, Grand View Research, Inc did not list Jamaica as a player.

I will cite the following to buttress that conclusion; “Legalization of medicinal marijuana and decriminalization in some countries has led to a significant decrease in the black market, as people are resorting to legally purchasing cannabis for medicinal as well as recreational use. Moreover, government earnings through taxation are further viewed as an opportunity for countries to earn revenues. Presence of a large customer pool and legalization of medical marijuana in U.S. and Canada is expected propel the product demand from North America.”

“However, legalization of medicinal cannabis in European countries, accompanied by stringent rules and regulations regarding the product sale and cultivation may limit the overall growth in Europe and in turn for the global market. Other promising markets for Cannabis are Australia, Germany, Poland, Colombia, Uruguay, and Israel. Israel is currently at the forefront of providing technology and knowledge transfer to the other world markets. As the newer markets such as the U.K. and Thailand create their legal structure for cannabis, the revenue growth is expected to witness significant growth. Moreover, countries like South Africa and New Zealand are discussing legalization for medicinal marijuana and may emerge as viable markets in the forthcoming years.”

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Likewise, we cannot afford to not capitalize on the bourgeoning legal export market. As Jamaicans, we have some of the most enviable illegal exportation mechanisms for illicit marijuana. We do not need those mechanisms for the exportation of legal marijuana. What we need are the legislative frameworks through which we can exploit and export our well awarded/regarded product. 

In that vein, I posit that Jamaica, with its proximity to the USA and Canada, has the necessary production infrastructure, land, water and manpower. Jamaican ganja farmers can go to market with lower prices than their global competitors due to the availability of affordable land, relatively low wages and an abundance of skilled ganja farmers who; through intergenerational participation;  have toiled in illegal ganja fields since its prohibition more than a century ago.

However, reap benefits promised, they must be cognizant of the inherent complications. The obstacles to full participation in the legal exportation are many and varied. In that context, recently, Agriculture Minister Audley Shaw welcomed the easing of one such hindrance, the passage of the SAFE Banking Act in the USA by the US House of Representative.  Shaw’s exuberance was a bit premature. The Act still faces obstacles in the US Senate, that aside, Jamaica needs to put the necessary legislative and regulatory framework in place to anticipate and be ahead of US Senate’s anticipated adoption of the House of Representative’s bill.

Let me warn, the Jamaican government needs to act with alacrity to capitalize on the exportation of our beloved product. Already, Colombia is ahead of us in the legal exportation of medicinal marijuana to legal medicinal import countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom. Unlike Colombia, Jamaica is well positioned as a Commonwealth country to exploit both markets given our historical trade agreements with both. We as a nation must exploit and utilize our most favored status with those countries.

Colombia’s role in the international market has not gone unnoticed, according to the US based National Public Radio(NPR), “Rather than a symbol of the country’s dark past of narco-fueled violence, Colombian drugs can now be used to treat people.” “At least that’s the bet of a growing number of entrepreneurs who are building vast marijuana plantations and state-of-the-art pharmaceutical laboratories that produce everything from cannabis-based pain relievers for cancer patients to dog treats that act as calming agents.” That analysis should serve as a wakeup call to the Jamaican government or Jamaica will be left out in the cold.

“Other countries are passing laws to permit the production, import and export of medical marijuana but Colombia has a leg up because it did so three years ago,” says Rodrigo Arcila, president of the Colombian Cannabis Industry Association. He said the group’s 29 member companies have invested more than $600 million in building medical marijuana facilities.”

With all the above, we must, as a nation, examine the roll of longstanding ganja farmers in the bourgeoning ganja market. I have seen some local exotic plants which respected connoisseurs have given kudos to. Small, experienced ganja farmers in Jamaica do have some of the most potent of all desired Jamaican species, but they cannot legally market it, why? Is there covert exclusivity in exportation, farming, marketing and ownership of local ganja medicinal clinics? Do you have to be uptown to get an equitable share of the market despite years of developing the product? Ergo, are traditional ganja farmers deliberately excluded by governmental inertia or the unstated “brown skinned bias?” That cannot be allowed to obtain.

Contextually, let me iterate, the Coptics, in the guise of a religious and benevolent entity were a religious cult from the USA which; incidentally; were the largest, the most profligate and major illegal exporters of ganja from Jamaica during the 1970s and 1980s. Farmers, day laborers who packaged the product and those involved in exports were handsomely rewarded. However, corrupt police officers and low level technocrats got rich. Today, that same exclusivity continues to obtain. Where and what will be the role of those who toiled, tweaked existing species, were imprisoned and scarred by society for their participation in the industry?

Whilst I fulsomely support the financial benefits to our national coffers, we must be cognizant of the local ganja farmers who are untrained agronomists. They are the ones who have created this enviable industry. We cannot allow the white and near white detritus of the plantocracy to control or dominate an industry which they publicly turned up their collectively gentrified noses at. Only the Jamaican government has that authority to protect indigenous farmers and they should do as a matter of urgency. Without legislative and regulatory protection, small ganja farmers will be doomed and prohibited from benefiting from this new, legal industry. Peace!


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