THE Rastafarian elder who was arrested and charged on National Heroes' Day for cultivating ganja at Sugar Loaf Peak Nyabingi Centre, Bob Marley Beach in Bull Bay, was subsequently released on station bail — but his arrest has reignited debate on the sacramental rights that Rastafarians have to cultivate the plant.
Marcus Goffe, a member of the Rastafari community who is also the attorney-at-law representing the elder, shared that his client will appear in the Morant Bay Parish Court to answer to the cultivation charge on November 9. The attorney will be requesting a meeting with Commissioner of Police Major General Antony Anderson to request that he tells the men and women of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) to "back off" the Rastafari community. He argued that the constant harassment of Rastafarians who plant ganja for sacramental purposes must stop, and pointed to the amendment of the Dangerous Drugs Act in 2015 which he said gave the group the right to use ganja as sacrament. He told the Jamaica Observer that numerous Rastafarians, including the elder who was arrested, had applied for licences to allow them to cultivate ganja for sacramental use but said the Ministry of Justice had not put a proper framework in place to facilitate the issuance of those licences.
"We explained everything to the police who arrested the elder. They said they were aware of the amendment but essentially the Ministry of Justice did not give any go-ahead so they cannot acknowledge the application for the licence.
"In all truthfulness we have been in dialogue with the minister of justice, the minister of national security and the commissioner of police about this situation for months but we still have Rastafarian families hauled before the courts. Sometimes they drop the charge, sometimes the case throw out, and sometimes there is conviction.
"You still have Rastamen being imprisoned or getting a criminal record. We have been asking for amnesty and while we are working through these things, make the police back off the Rastafari community. A lot of people are growing their own thing or are buying from others who have Cannabis Licensing Authority licences to grow. Dem still siddung pon Rastafari rights fi how long and are prioritising other people who just come een and a talk bout ganja."
A representative of the Cannabis Licensing Authority who requested anonymity told the Sunday Observer that the Ministry of Justice has failed since 2015 to put together a framework and monitoring system to accommodate Rastafarians.
"What the Ministry of Justice is supposed to be doing is developing a database of these sacramental sites. They are supposed to have a registry and share that with the police so that the Rastas can stop being harassed. Ideally, that is what is required, and then the ministry would issue a sacramental permit. The regulations would stipulate how much area they have and what they can and cannot do."
Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck on Thursday sought to shift blame to the Rastafarians, whom he said do not want to be told how much ganja they can produce.
"The Rastas have had several meetings with me. I have indicated to them that the law provides for them to be able to grow at least five plants per household. They say that is not enough for their sacramental purposes. There are quite a few of them who feel that they should be allowed to plant as many acres as they see fit, wherever they see fit. It is not possible for the Ministry of Justice to just give a blanket order for a Rasta to grow marijuana in whatever amount he sees fit. They have not complied by outlining to us exactly where they want to grow and how much area they want to grow. You can't say that you are applying to grow sacramental marijuana and then tell me that you want to grow 20 acres; it has to be within a certain boundary. I told them there is no reason why they should not be allowed to grow 20 or 40 plants within a limited area."
Kamau Janai, Rastafari cannabis activist and board member of the Cannabis Licensing Authority, moved to rubbish the minister's argument, pointing out that the amended Dangerous Drugs Act 2015 states that any person in possession of ganja in excess of two ounces or more than five plants at home would have committed an offence. However, that does not apply to people growing ganja for medicinal and sacramental purposes.
He said the justice ministry sent out a draft of a regulatory document roughly a month ago that speaks to places of worship, but acknowledged that it is in the draft phase. He added that there were two forms that were created by the Ministry of Justice, known as the application for sacramental cultivation and application for a place of worship. He said there are over 60 sacramental spaces that have applied for permits and recommended that the justice minister implement an amnesty until regulations are gazetted.
"When we met with the minister of justice, the minister of national security and the police commissioner, we spoke to them about considering an amnesty. The amnesty would be a period where there is no raiding of our spaces, even while we are going through this regulatory document. While we are in negotiation we don't have a complete permit for sacramental spaces as yet — and they ought to let their officers know about it. Even when the police came by Bob Marley Beach the inspector said unless he sees an official licence he cannot honour it, he just have to carry out his orders. Rastafari is still being harassed and violated and charged for the possession of ganja over and above what they say is two ounce or five plants in the household. This law does not apply to Rastafari," Janai said.