Rastafari is often regarded as the quintessential cannabis religion, with the late Bob Marley its patron saint. But what exactly is the role played by cannabis? Today, we’ll explore what Rasta cannabis really means in the spiritual culture of Rastafari.
What Is Rastafari?
The religion of Rastafari began in the 1930s, developing in Jamaica after Haile Selassie I was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia. (This is why many elements of the movement reflect Ethiopian culture as well as Jamaican culture.) Rastafari embraces most of the Christian Bible, but they believe that its message and interpretation have been perverted. Other Rastafari beliefs that come out of Christianity include the Trinitarian nature of God (Jah) who sent his divine son to Earth (Yeshua). This is where Haile Selassie I comes in; he is the messiah who Rastafari believe is God incarnate.
The most well-known facet of the movement is, of course, the Rasta cannabis; another major tenet is the rejection of materialism, oppression, and sensual pleasures of society, which is collectively referred to as Babylon. Zion is to be found in Ethiopia; Rastafari calls for repatriation to Zion, which can mean a mental repatriation as well as actually physically moving to Ethiopia.
But proponents of the Rastafari way of life don’t just get high. Cannabis has a spiritual purpose.
The Role of Rasta Cannabis
The main purpose of Rasta cannabis is a spiritual one, although you might be more familiar with its more well-known Rasta-related terminology, ganja, which comes from the Sanskrit word ganjika. Partaking in cannabis is often accompanied by Bible study, and the plant is regarded as a cleansing sacrament, which cleans the body and mind, heals the soul, exalts the consciousness, facilitates peacefulness, brings pleasure, and brings them closer to Jah.
The illegality of cannabis is often invoked as evidence of the persecution of Rastafari. After all, if cannabis is a powerful substance that can open people’s minds to the truth – and this is something that Rastas certainly believe – it stands to reason that the Babylon government would not want its people to have access to it.
The importance of cannabis isn’t just something that the Rastafari believers randomly settled on; passages from the Bible are frequently cited in support of the spiritual use of cannabis. Genesis 1:29 is probably the most common one: “And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.” (This line specifically has yielded three common vernacular words for cannabis today: grass, herb, and kind.) Another related passage comes from Psalms 104:14: “He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man, that he may bring forth food out of the Earth.” Rasta leaders also allege that cannabis was found growing on King Solomon’s grave.
The sacramental use of cannabis was FINALLY legalized in Jamaica just last year; recreational use has also been heavily decriminalized, and medicinal use is entirely legal. Sacramental use has not yet been legally recognized in the United States, but as the culture continues to shift, it may just happen yet!
Cultural Corruption of Rasta Cannabis
Perceptions of the Rastafari movement probably starting getting out of hand in the ’70s, when two things happened: reggae music was commercialized, after committed Rastafari (and vocal proponent of Rasta cannabis) Bob Marley signed with a UK label and began to establish himself beyond his native Jamaica; and 60 Minutes aired a special that portrayed the Rastafari religion as a front for the smuggling of illegal drugs. While attitudes toward cannabis are more open now than they’ve ever been, it’s easy to see how such a “shocking” news program could spread misconceptions far and wide, especially back then.
Originally an obscure genre that uniquely reflected Jamaica’s political turmoil, by the ’70s reggae was quickly becoming an international music phenomenon. The popularity of the music birthed numerous pseudo-Rastafarians. They mimicked the cultural stylings of the religion – the jargon, the dreadlocks, the Rasta cannabis – without embracing the spirituality and ideological principles. Traditional believers felt that this trivialized the movement; to the public, Rastafari was seen as a “cultural fad” rather than a serious religious and/or political movement.
The cannabis, in fact, is exactly what allowed music execs to successfully market reggae; instead of cutting out the politics, the smoking of ganja as a symbol of rebellion was celebrated. Never mind what was actually being rebelled against by the cannabis; all the music industry cared about was selling records and an image. Despite the fact that reggae music is often created by loose collections of singers and hired studio musicians, Bob Marley and his Wailers were re-branded as a band in the rock and roll mold – yet another way to shape their position as societal rebels.
Despite the co-opting of the music and politics, however, true believers know what Marley really stood for as a prophet of Rastafari. When he died, he was buried with his guitar, a soccer ball, and – of course – a great big branch of cannabis.