About ten years ago, I had just returned from Jamaica where I had spent time in trying to develop a recycling center. In the course of my stay on the island, I had come to know a good many Rastas.
Rastafarianism, briefly, is a back-to-Africa movement that holds Haile Selassie, the one-time Emperor of Ethiopia, as a living god, believes the Bible to be sacred text, and uses ganja as a sacrament in understanding the divine.
There are a great many nuances in Rastafarianism that cannot be placed in a single sentence—food choices made on Biblical instruction (pork is unclean), I-tal food is better—natural and clean—lots of vegetables and fruits and fish not over 12 inches long, no alcohol; the role of women (a very conservative patriarchal society); attitudes towards sex (lots of it for men reflecting his personal power, while women are to be monogamous); an unflinching belief that Haile Selassie is alive and well; a contempt of Babylon (Western imperialism and the corresponding social and political domination); and a ban on cutting hair, leading to beards and dreadlocks.
In returning to the United States those years ago, I learned that a good friend was to play guitar with Mickey Hart at the World Music Festival in Marysville, California. On arriving at the music fest, I was surprised to see vendors selling the same goods I had just left vendors selling in Jamaica—tee shirts with Rasta colors, pipes, decals, and many other Jamaican items. Small stores created to look like a Caribbean village sold hemp clothing, Jamaican jerk, and I-tal food.
What was most amazing to me was the number of vendors and families from Humboldt County. And in looking closely at these white dreads, those wearing the dreadlocks of the Rastafarians, it was clear to me that these were generational family members. The elders of this tribe were old hippies, perhaps in their sixties, a second generation of older adults in their forties, children in their twenties, and a whole group of younger kids under five, some riding on hips and others with long hair already growing out.
Astounded at first, I asked myself what this was about. Clearly, this was not a back-to-Africa movement, nor did this cultural group believe in the godliness of Haile Selassie. Rather, this was a group who had chosen ganja as a sacrament and who had put their beliefs and spirituality into a religion that also held ganja as a sacrament. Where else was there a place for the spiritual use of Cannabis in American society.
Over the years, the dynamic of Rastafarianism has spread worldwide. Those white dreads I first viewed are no longer unique, but can be found in every country. With those deadlocks, there is often a belief in vegetarianism, social justice, political liberalism, and an acceptance that ganja is sacramental and offers a spiritual experience.
Now with the end of marijuana/ganja/Cannabis prohibition on the horizon, with California apparently ready to legalize “recreational” marijuana in November of 2016, with more states accepting medial Cannabis, with Bernie Sanders prepared to introduce legislation that will remove Cannabis from the controlled substance Schedule 1 list of drugs that have no medical uses, isn’t it time to think about what the use of Cannabis and the change in consciousness really is?
The Rastafarians have known for a long time that ganja is a sacrament. Bob Marley, perhaps the world’s best-known Rastafarian has said: “When you smoke the herb, it revels you to yourself.” Also: “Herb is the healing of a nation; alcohol its destruction.” The source of this belief—the Bible: Genesis 3:18 “…thou shalt eat of the herb of the field”, and Proverbs 15:17 “Better is a dinner of herb where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith”.
As we move into this new era of legalization, whether personal use is for medical reasons and the outstanding benefits of some strains of Cannabis, or for relaxation (Rastas believe this is part of creating peace), there can be little doubt that there is a heightening of consciousness. If, as a culture, we learn to respect the Cannabis experience, if we approach our experiences as sacramental, where might that insight take us as a people?