LIBERTA, Antigua (AP) — On the same ground where their enslaved ancestors were forced to plant sugar cane, Rastafari in Antigua and Barbuda are now legally growing and ritualistically smoking marijuana.
For Rastafari, the practice brings them closer to the divine. But for decades, many have been jailed and endured racial and religious profiling by law enforcement because of their marijuana use.
The government of Antigua and Barbuda has sought to right that wrong. The twin islands recently became one of the first Caribbean nations to grant Rastafari authorisation to grow and smoke their sacramental herb.
"We're more free now," said Ras Tashi, a member of the Ras Freeman Foundation for the Unification of Rastafari, who was arrested for growing cannabis.
On a recent Sunday, he led chants in the tabernacle on the foundation's farm located in Liberta's lush agricultural district. Tashi puffed on a corn husk-wrapped joint while others passed chalice pipes and waved Rastafari flags in green, gold and red.
"The government gives us our religious rights … we can come and plant any amount of marijuana … and no police can come and take up any plant. We fight for that right — and we get that right," he said.
Rastafari elsewhere are pushing for similar religious protections. Experts and stakeholders think the Antigua and Barbuda law could boost these efforts worldwide at a time when public opinion and policy continue to shift in favour of medical and recreational marijuana use.
Under the same law change, the island government also decriminalised the use of marijuana. In addition to the expansive religious use granted Rastafari, people outside the faith can grow four cannabis plants each and possess up to 15 grams.
"We believe that we have to provide a space for everyone at the table, irrespective of their religion," Prime Minister Gaston Browne told The Associated Press at an interview in the capital city of St John's.
"Just as we've recognised other faiths, it's absolutely important for us to also ensure that the Rastafari faith is also acknowledged."
Rastafari reject materialist values and often practice a strict oneness with nature, eating only unprocessed foods as part of "Ital" their faith's vegetarian diet. They also let their hair grow, uncombed, into dreadlocks.
But many were long treated as second-class citizens across the Caribbean islands, looked down on for their dreads and sacramental marijuana use.
The prime minister said that growing up in Antigua, he witnessed how adult Rastafari were chased by police, while children were not allowed in schools because of their hair. Browne also recalled how members of the Rastafari fed him "Ital" meals when his single mother, who had a mental illness, struggled to raise him and his siblings.
In 2018, Browne apologised publicly to the Rastafari community for the oppression and religious persecution they suffered. He also said that Rastafari should be given a stake in the production and economic benefits derived from medicinal marijuana as reparations "for the wrongs inflicted on this significant minority group in our countries."
His government also led efforts to decriminalise marijuana use. Earlier this year, he met with Rastafari groups and granted them licenses from the country's medical cannabis authority to grow the plant for religious purposes.
The changes faced some opposition from some politicians and Christian leaders in the socially conservative Caribbean region. But Rastafari academics praised Browne's apology and his government's actions, saying this tiny nation of about 100,000 people has gone further than regional efforts by larger countries, and could set a global example.
Jamaica and the US Virgin Islands granted sacramental rights to cannabis. But Charles Price, a professor at Philadelphia's Temple University who focuses on Rastafari identity, said that Antigua and Barbuda's comprehensive initiative could spur more organising for the sacramental recognition of cannabis in other islands.
They've become "test cases for the rest of the Caribbean," he said. "They'll suggest the viability of this … so other nations can now look to these two nations and say, 'Ah, they've done it.'"
Through a lease from the government, a former sugar cane plantation — a symbol of slavery and British colonial oppression — in Antigua has been transformed into worship grounds, sustainable farmland and the headquarters for Ras Freeman, one of the island's main Rastafari groups.