Doctors smoke it, nurses smoke it, judges smoke it, even the lawyer too. From Bob Marley posters on the walls of college dorm rooms to rootsy reggae riddims pulsating out of speakers in marijuana dispensaries in the western United States, reggae music has been a staple of global cannabis culture for decades. Somewhere between your pack of rolling papers and the fresh box of nag champa likely sits one of your favorite old reggae albums. But often times the genre’s biting social commentary, especially regarding why marijuana legalization is an important issue, is lost in the haze and up until last week many of the island’s most vocal proponents of smoking herb whether it be for religious, medicinal, or recreational purposes were still breaking the law back in reggae’s birthplace of Jamaica.
Songs like Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It,” Barrington Levy’s “Under Mi Sensi,” John Holt’s “Police in Helicopter,” to more recent tracks like Chronixx’s “Perfect Tree” or Kabaka Pyramid’s “Herb Defenda” all tell variations of the struggle between cannabis prohibition on the island dating back to a colonial era law from 1913, and the smokers, farmers, and distributors that continue depend on one of Jamaica’s most lucrative cash crops. Reggae music has always been an outlet for devotees of Rastafari—the poor, downpressed, and marginalized—to have a platform to speak out on important social issues, and by looking back on some of the genre’s biggest ganja tunes it is easy to see why recent changes in the law are so significant. While tourists flock to resorts in Ocho Rios and Negril to relax and smoke spliffs with impunity, locals often find themselves risking imprisonment or being beaten up by the police for attempting to enjoy the same privilege.
On February 24, 2015 Jamaican legislators in the lower House made a historical move and decriminalized possession of up to two ounces of cannabis and the cultivation of five plants on any premises. The change in the law makes both offenses non-criminal violations and for the first time ever Rasta’s will be able to smoke ganja legally for religious purposes. Additionally, a committee is going to be set up to oversee the distribution of marijuana for both medicinal and research purposes. While there is still ways to go before ganja is fully legalized in Jamaica and while the island’s cannabis industry is under threat by predatory venture capitalists hoping to make a buck off Jamaica’s reputation and the Marley name, it feels safe to say that after 40 years Peter Tosh’s plea to “Legalize marijuana, right here in Jamaica” is finally on the verge of being realized.
Shortly after leaving The Wailers in 1974 Tosh, recorded Legalize It, his first album as a solo artist at Treasure Isle and Randy’s studios in Kingston, Jamaica. The title track was promptly banned from Jamaican radio upon its release in 1975; however, the following year the album became an international hit and even caught the attention of Rolling Stones Records. To this day many casual fans of reggae only know Tosh for his fiery ganja tunes despite the fact that he released seven albums and a number of collaborative projects. Peter Tosh, however, was by no means the first reggae artist to incorporate marijuana lyrics in his music. Years earlier Bob Marley and The Wailers with the help of Lee “Scratch” Perry released “Kaya” on the Soul Revolution album, which remains Marley’s most popular ode to ganja to this day, but Tosh was the first to explicitly advocate for the plant’s legalization.
Aside from Legalize It, Peter also put out a number of other songs like “Bush Doctor” and “Buk-In-Hamm Palace” that combined his faith in Rastafari with his affinity for ganja and militant passion for pushing social change. He even famously lit up a spliff while on stage during the One Love Peace Concert in 1978 before powerfully calling out the police for brutalizing ganja smokers in an infamous seven-minute long speech. While there were no ramifications for his protest at the time, a couple months later he was arrested for suspicion of smoking ganja and nearly beaten to death by up to ten police officers.
Tosh’s militancy and unshakeable devotion to freeing the herb would become an integral part of his legacy and up until his untimely murder in 1987 he remained committed to seeing major changes in Jamaica’s marijuana laws. He spoke passionately about how marijuana could be used as medicine and a tool to bring people together, but emphasized that under the current system it was being used as a tool for police to target the poor disproportionately, which is disturbingly similar to how marijuana laws continue to effect black males in the United States. Tosh often described a situation where him and other underprivileged Jamaicans would try to mind their own business and smoke a little ganja only to face harsh repression from the state. It is very likely that some of the popular tracks dealing with Jamaica’s cannabis culture in the ‘90s and more recently would be less impactful if he had not literally put his neck on the line with Legalize It back in 1976.
Today as places like Jamaica, Uruguay, D.C., Colorado, Washington State, and Alaska among others begin to turn back regressive marijuana laws, it is the perfect time to reflect on Peter Tosh’s contributions to reggae music. Few artists devoted as much of their career specifically to the legalization of ganja and even fewer were able to use their uncompromising beliefs to launch one of the most iconic careers in reggae history. It goes without saying that as Jamaica moves forward with legalization, although Peter is no longer with us to “advertise it,” reggae music is and it will.
Burnin’ and Lootin’ is a column by Robert Gordon that showcases upcoming artists, musicians, poets, and entertainers from the Caribbean. From Kingston to Miami to New York City and beyond the Caribbean continues to have a lasting cultural impact and each week we look at one individual or group that is helping to promote island culture through the arts.