Members of the Rastafari religion and political movement have for decades been persecuted and imprisoned for their ritualistic use of marijuana. But the tiny islands of Antigua and Barbuda recently became one of the first Caribbean nations to grant Rastafari official sacramental authorization to grow and smoke the herb that they deem sacred.
Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told The Associated Press in an interview that his government took this step to try to end the persecution and bring respect to the Rastafari faith.
Rastafari elsewhere are pushing for similar religious protections. Experts and stakeholders think the Antigua and Barbuda law could give a boost to these efforts worldwide at a time when public opinion and policy are continuing to shift in favor of medical and recreational marijuana use.
Here is a quick look at the faith’s beliefs and history:
The Rastafari faith is rooted in 1930s Jamaica, growing as a response by Black people to white colonial oppression. The beliefs are a melding of Old Testament teachings and a desire to return to Africa. Its message was spread across the world in the 1970s by Jamaican music icons Bob Marley and Peter Tosh — two of the faith’s most famous exponents.
A Rastafari’s personal relationship with “Jah,” or God, is considered central to the faith.
Rastafari followers believe the use of marijuana is directed in biblical passages and that the “holy herb” induces a meditative state and brings them closer to the divine. The faithful smoke it as a sacrament in chalice pipes or cigarettes called “spliffs,” add it to plant-based organic stews and place it in fires as a burnt offering.
But adherents, many of them Black, have endured both racial and religious profiling due to their ritualistic use of cannabis.
“Ganja,” as marijuana is known in the Caribbean, has a long history in Jamaica, and its arrival predates the Rastafari faith. Indentured servants from India brought the cannabis plant to the island in the 19th century, and it gained popularity as a medicinal herb.
Most of its many sects worship the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. This is rooted in Jamaican Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey’s 1920s prediction that a “Black king shall be crowned” in Africa, ushering in a “day of deliverance.” When an Ethiopian prince named Ras Tafari, who took the name Haile Selassie I, became emperor in 1930, the descendants of slaves in Jamaica took it as proof that Garvey’s prophecy was being fulfilled. When Haile Selassie visited Jamaica in 1966, he was greeted by adoring crowds, and some Rastafari insisted miracles and other mystical occurrences took place during his visit to the island.
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