The ganja law of 1913: 100 years of oppressive injusticeMonday, December 02, 2013
THIS year marks the 100th anniversary of the Ganja Law of 1913. This law was rooted in fear and also in a tradition of law-making that discriminated against lower class black people. It is a racist law that epitomises the oppressive injustice of slavery and the colonial/planter system. This racist law was the idea of the Council of Evangelical Churches in Jamaica. The Law gave the police special powers which members of the force used, in a brutal and repressive manner, against the people in general and the Rastafarians in particular. The Ganja Law of 1913 must be abolished and replaced by a new regime. The earliest debates on ganja were informed by elite white perception and anecdotal evidence. They lacked the philosophical, logical and scientific perspectives.
The history of ganja and the Jamaican society is interesting and instructive. It is interesting because of the major characters and setting associated with the Law of 1913 and its subsequent amendments. It is instructive because it illustrates the brutal nature of law-making process in post-slavery society, and its oppressive application against the masses, lower class black people. The emergence of the campaign and preparation of this oppressive instrument, the 1913 Law and its Amendment in the 1920's, was led by the Church and white elites. During the 1930's and 1940s the newspaper in combination with elite perception, the police and the Resident Magistrate were the major characters in the amendments in that period. In the pre-and post- Independence period the government through the Ministries of Home Affairs and later the Minister of Health led the ganja debate of the 1960s and 1970s. Today it is the Minister of Justice who plays the lead role for the government in the current ganja debate. The planter-controlled society meted out severe punishment to black labourers in the form of extremely high fines for penalties from court cases in the post-emancipation period. The fine for ganja, "a victimless crime", was exorbitant for people who had little or no money. When the fines were not effective as deterrent, they were combined with mandatory imprisonment. It was this law that introduced "mandatory imprisonment" in the jurisprudence landscape of Jamaica. This measure did not curb the use of ganja.
At the end of the 19th century into the early 20th century, the church in Jamaica saw its power declining. There were the emergence of the revivalist movements and also an increasing of vices — use of opium, ganja and alcohol. It felt that it had the moral obligation to curb, if not destroy these vices. Many newspaper reports have illustrated the issues of the church regarding ganja smoking among the "natives"; and also its association of ganja to insanity. In 1912 there was an Opium Convention at The Hague. There were also increasing concerns in Jamaica on ganja smoking among the "natives". According to one study, the Council of Evangelical Churches prepared the Law and sent it to the Legislative Council in 1912. It was not acted upon. In the same period the newspaper published that out of 283 people admitted admitted to using ganja. About the same period there was another article on the "Dangers of ganja smoking among the natives of this colony" illustrating the dangers of ganja smoking now that there is increasing evidence of ganja smoking among black people. The white elites associated violence with ganja smoking; and since they perceive black people as 'brutes' they developed narratives of the 'evils of ganja smoking' among lower class blacks. During the colonial/planter rule racism was the order of the day; and high fines as oppressive penalties were meted out against lower class black people for the simplest of crimes. The matter of race emerged again in the
mid-1960s was raised by government Senator Ronald Irvine in the ganja debate with Opposition Senator Ken McNeil.
The Ganja Law of 1913 was employed against the "cultivation and importation" of ganja, punishable by a fine of one hundred pounds or up to 12 months imprisonment. The same Council of Evangelical Movement observed that the Law of 1913 was "practically useless". According to reports the Church called for amendments for smoking selling and entering premises upon which ganja is grown by the police. There was no regard for the rights of man on how he used his private property. This reflection on the second amendment took at the time of the 1924 UN Opium conference in Geneva. The 1924 Amendment, inspired by the Church called for drastic increased of fines and imprisonment on first conviction. It was renamed "Dangerous Drug Law of 1924". The 1930 and 1940's was marked with the rise of the early Rastafari movement and the role of lower class black people resisting oppression. The leading newspaper and the white elites began a national campaign against ganja against their fears about the plant. The police and the Resident Magistrates of the parishes were the leading characters in the amendment of the 1924 Law. There was concern that ganja smoking may have been associated with the uprisings among the masses in 1938. The 1937 Marijuana Tax Act may have provided propaganda during the period.
The 1940s amendment was, in part, a response to the emergence of Leonard P. Howell and the early Rastafari movement. The development of the Ganja amendments in the 1960's was also associated with radical activism by Rasta and also violence associated with the Henry back-to-Africa movement. It was the period of the "Coral Gardens Affairs" that the amendments of the 1960s took place. New developments in Jamaican politics in the 1970s and influence from scientific developments about ganja smoking, smashed the anecdotal allegations of the past. This led to profound change of the ganja law in the 1970s by removing the list of criminal activities associated with the law and its mandatory imprisonment characteristic. A study of Ganja Smoking in Jamaica completed by Rubin and Comitas in 1972 may have also had influence on the ganja debates of the 1970s. Changes in the USA during the 1990s and 2000s, have influenced levels of ganja lobbying in Jamaica that led to the Chevannes Commission in 2000 and the current initiative led by the Minister of Justice, Minister Mark Golding, respectively. The time has come for a new regime for ganja, similar to the license and regulation of alcohol. According to Fraser (1974) in his study on the ganja laws in the region, the eradication of ganja is impossible and the time has come for a new legal regime.
Louis EA Moyston