Jamaica is confronting a cannabis shortage. After heavy rains came an extended drought, local consumption has risen and the number of people farming cannabis has fallen. The resultant dearth of cannabis in the island’s famed illegal market has been described by experts as the worst they’ve ever seen.

Rastafarians claim the flag of Ethiopia during the reign of Haile Selassie. The religion emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s. Photo: Dejan Krsmanovic

Rastafarians claim the flag of Ethiopia during the reign of Haile Selassie. The religion emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s. Photo: Dejan Krsmanovic

Jamaica, long linked to cannabis, reggae and Rastafarianism, legalised the drug for medical purposes and decriminalised possession of small quantities of it in 2015: people found with no more than two ounces of cannabis can be hit with a fine of around $5 but no arrest. The day of amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act would have been the 70th birthday of Bob Marley, who was born in Jamaica and described the drug as “the healing of a nation.” Leaving the country while in possession of cannabis is still considered drug trafficking. Folk can legally grow as many as five cannabis plants. Rastafarians are allowed to smoke cannabis for religious purposes, the first time in the world that cannabis usage has ever been permitted on religious grounds, although consumption must occur at their place of worship, and they can’t sell it.

Triston Thompson is the chief opportunity explorer for Tacaya, a consulting and brokerage firm for the country’s inchoate legal cannabis industry. He called the current cannabis shortage “laughable” and “a cultural embarrassment.” He added, “Last 12 months was the worst 12 months. We’ve by no means had this quantity of loss.” The shortage has driven prices up.

The cannabis shortage began when heavy rain in the course of last year’s hurricane season struck cannabis fields. The drought which followed made things even worse. Farmers were hit by tens of thousands of dollars of losses. Daneyel Bozra grows cannabis in the historic village of Accompong. Located in southwestern Jamaica, it was established by escaped slaves known as Maroons in the 18th century. Bozra lamented, “It destroyed everything.”

Strict measures to combat Covid-19 exacerbated the problem: a 6 pm curfew prevented farmers from attending to their fields by night as is customary. Without roads, many farmers walked to their fields and to fetch water from springs and wells, but the curfew curtailed this. 29-year-old Kenrick Wallace, who grows two acres of cannabis in Accompong with the assistance of 20 other people, produced a mere 300lbs compared to the usual 700 or 800lbs, losing over $18,000 in the process.

Local consumption has risen in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and with decriminalisation. Meanwhile, the number of cannabis-seeking tourists, who often tour outdoor cannabis farms, has dropped. Tourists can ask any cab driver or hotel worker where to get the stuff.

The government’s Cannabis Licensing Authority granted permission to 29 cultivators and denied there was a cannabis shortage. Paul Burke, chief executive of Jamaica’s Ganja Growers and Producers Association, speaks of small farmers abandoning cannabis in frustration since they can’t meet the requirements of the legal market: individuals must pay a $300 fee while businesses must stump up $500; annual fees might be as much as $10,000. Legal cannabis is sold at establishments called herb houses at a price five or 10 times as much as you get in the street, making it unaffordable to many.

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