Rastafarianism is typically associated with marijuana, Bob Marley, Jamaica, and dreadlocks. What many people don’t seem to realize is that the Rastafari don’t use weed just to get stoned – they genuinely believe it is a healing herb. Their usage of cannabis is strictly religious and medicinal, so much so that many members are wary of its potential legalization for recreational use in Jamaica.
What is Rastafarianism?
Although it is an Abrahamic religion, Rastafarianism is different to other forms of worship insofar as there is no central authority. There is also no specific religious building such as a church, synagogue or mosque where they congregate to worship. Instead, it is normal for Rastafari to meet weekly in a community center or a Rasta’s house.
These meetings are known as Reasoning sessions. They are a time for members of the faith to chant, sing, say prayers, or discuss communal issues. The Rastafari also use marijuana to produce heightened spiritual states. Some meetings revolve around music and are known as Nyabinghi meetings, which occasionally include large feasts.
Although there are different forms of Rasta belief, and it is known as an idea and a socio-political movement as well as a religion, all of them have a symbolic identity with the Twelve Tribes of Israel. They also share a single prophet, known as Ras Tafari. This is the given name of Emperor Haile Selassie I, who was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930.
Why Do They Worship Haile Selassie?
It transpires that Selassie fulfilled a prophecy in the verses of Psalms, which said that a king would come from Africa to lead black people to Zion, the Promised Land in Ethiopia, a nation which they say represents the whole of Africa. When Selassie became ruler of Ethiopia, he became the king of Africa’s only independent nation at the time. Some members of the Rastafari faith believe Selassie was a reincarnation of God (like Jesus Christ), while others believe he was a destined emissary.
Today, over 40 years after he was deposed, Selassie is referred to as His Imperial Majesty (HIM) and is universally revered by those who practice Rastafarianism. Rastas also believe that the Bible’s true meaning has been warped to deny black Africans their rightful place in history (along with mistranslation of the Bible into other languages). Furthermore, Rastas believe the Bible is cryptographic, which means it has several hidden meanings.
Although the Rasta religion is based on text that’s over 2,000 years old, it is a relatively new form of worship. The notion of a black king in Africa fulfilling a prophecy is not a recent phenomenon, but it became publicized by legendary Jamaican activist and writer Marcus Garvey back in 1928. Living in New York at the time, Garvey said: “Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand.”
Within two years, Haile Selassie was Emperor of Ethiopia. A Jamaican preacher named Leonard Percival Howell was inspired by Garvey’s words and rented a space from Garvey’s organization in New York. However, he was kicked out of the building when Garvey became alarmed by Howell’s marijuana use. When he was deported in 1932, Howell combined Garvey’s call of empowerment with a black Abrahamic faith.
He referred to it as ‘Rastafari’; not quite Christian, and it included Jewish symbols. Next, Howell began preaching the word to villagers. His door-to-door approach, which focused on the poor and downtrodden, was effective enough, but he was arrested and jailed in 1933. Remember, Jamaica was still part of Colonial Britain, and the upper-class members of society did not tolerate Howell’s insistence on forming a new religion.
He remained in jail for three years and quickly gained new followers upon his release. Howell established ‘Pinnacle’ in 1940, which was a 1,000 Rasta-strong community who followed a strict veget arian diet with no seasonings barring weed. They smoked marijuana in their discussion groups as a means of gaining a further connection with their religion. Howell pointed out that weed was encouraged in the Bible.
Howell was arrested for selling weed throughout Jamaica in 1941, but was released two years later. Over the next two decades, Rastafarianism spread and, in 1962, the island gained independence from Britain. The greatest day in the history of the religion occurred in 1966, when Emperor Selassie visited Jamaica. He endeared himself to the adoring crowd by refusing to walk on a red carpet; preferring instead to walk amongst the people.
His visit took place on April 21, so to this day, Rastas celebrate 4/21 day rather than 4/20 day. Bob Marley became one of the most famous proponents of Rastafarianism, and he helped spread its message around the world.
Rastafarianism & Marijuana
Since marijuana is effectively outlawed in virtually every organized religion around the world, how did it gain such significance in Rastafarianism? First of all, cannabis was only brought to Jamaica in the late 19th century by indentured East Indians. Although it became outlawed on the island, it was used by herbalists as medicine in teas before the formation of Rastafarianism.
According to the faith, marijuana is an herb of tremendous religious significance. In The Rastafarians: The Dreadlocks of Jamaica, by Leonard Barrett, the writer states that weed was initially used as a reaction to the treatment of black people in society. It was a device that helped establish a sense of freedom from the oppressive establishment.
The Rastafari believe that the famous Tree of Life in the Bible is actually the marijuana plant. They also believe that several Biblical passages promote usage of the herb such as:
- “Eat every herb of the land.” – Exodus 10:12
- “The herb is the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22:2
- “Thou shalt eat the herb of the field.” Genesis 3:18
- “He causeth the grass for the cattle, and herb for the services of man.” Psalm 104:14
It is a mistake to assume that the Rastafari enjoy getting stoned. In actual fact, they condemn using the herb for the sole purpose of enjoying a psychoactive high. Instead, they use it in a ritualized fashion to help enhance the feelings of unity and to create spiritual and soothing visions.
Their ‘reasoning sessions’ are religious meetings where the group meditates and uses weed to help each member enter a trance-like state. It is common for the cannabis to be smoked via a ‘chalice’ (pipe) and the Rasta always say the following as a prayer before imbibing:
“Glory be to the father and to the maker of creation. As it was, in the beginning, is now and ever shall be World without end.”
These reasoning sessions are a central component of the faith. They are seen as a time to debate the world according to their religion’s outlook. They believe that marijuana enables them to achieve a state where they become closer to God (Jah), and see the world’s ‘truth’ clearly.
As marijuana is a central tenet of Rastafarianism, its followers are sometimes treated leniently when found in possession of marijuana in places where it is illegal. Most people are stunned to learn that weed is illegal in Jamaica and has been since the Ganja Law of 1913. Possession was decriminalized in February 2015, and the new laws also ensured that the Rastafari were legally allowed to use the herb for religious purposes without fear of prosecution.
In May 2016, a man in Italy was arrested for possessing eight grams of cannabis in his pockets, along with 50 grams at home. However, at his trial in November 2017, a court in the city of Bari decided that the man should be acquitted because he was a member of the Rastafari religion. The outcome of the case was great news for Rastafarianism, as it is a sign that perhaps its followers can use weed in most countries around the world without fear of arrest.
Final Thoughts on Rastafarianism and Marijuana
For the Rastafari, there is a LOT more to marijuana than merely getting high. In their religion, cannabis laws are an affront to God, along with being an obstruction to religious freedom. Rastas point out that ganja grows wild, and God created a myriad of herbs, but none of them are subject to the same degree of prohibition as marijuana.
Although the movement is relatively well-known around the world with more than one million followers, it still has a long way to go to overcome the negative stereotypes associated with its use of marijuana.