November 21, 2014
By Max Daly
When an American private equity firm led by a team of white, Yale-educated go-getting fitness freaks – i.e. people who are probably as un-Rasta as it is possible to be – announced they had made Bob Marley the face of the world’s first cannabis brand this week, the reaction in the reggae superstar’s homeland was somewhat muted.
The newspapers, internet and radio phone-ins were not abuzz with chatter, perhaps because people have long seen this piece of bad news coming. For many in Jamaica, a country desperate to revive its battered economy, the announcement that Privateer Holdings are aiming to make Marley the “Marlboro man of marijuana” was like watching their nation’s golden goose dust itself off, flap its wings and head off over the horizon to America – or, as Bob himself called it, the land of “pure devilry”.
Marley Natural, a range of marijuana-related products including lotions and “heirloom Jamaican cannabis strains”, tellingly has a logo designed by the people who did the Starbucks mermaid. If US anti-ganja laws continue to fall like dominos, as many think they will, it’s a product that could mean Marley leapfrogs Michael Jackson to become the richest dead man ever.
Marley’s daughter Cedella told the press that it seemed natural that Bob should be a part of this conversation. “My dad would be so happy to see people understanding the healing power of the herb, he’s smiling right now at what’s really happening.”
But the deal struck between the Marley estate and corporate America represents a bitter pill to swallow for many Jamaicans. It’s a galling double whammy for many who had pinned their hopes on harnessing two of Jamaica’s most bankable cultural legacies – Bob Marley and ganja – to keep the island afloat.
Despite the slick advert showing misty-eyed panoramas of verdant Jamaican ganja country, Marley weed will not be grown on the island, because growing marijuana is not legal there. It will be grown somewhere in the US and the brand will be based in New York City. Jamaica will see little benefit from the cannabis sold under its favourite son’s name.
It’s a sickening irony for the country’s numerous Rastafarian and cannabis growing communities, who, since the 1913 ganja ban, have been campaigning to legally grow their world-renowned weed – because one of the major barriers to Jamaica legalising pot growing has been the very country that is about to benefit from the Marley-Jamaica ganja complex. Decades of political bullying from America, including trade sanctions, has ensured the Jamaican government has toed the anti-drugs line and kept ganja illegal.
Now the wind has changed, with US states falling over each other to trouser the green dollar and an increased demand for medical marijuana from countries such as Canada. Jamaica has been left on the back foot. Despite the recent passing of a new law to decriminalise low-level cannabis possession, as well as cross-party consensus that legalisation is likely to be the way forward, Jamaica’s ganja industry remains tethered by outdated restrictions, and that is why Marley’s family had little option but to go abroad.
I spoke to Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst at the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, who earlier this week was on the island at a meeting of the Ganja Future Growers and Producers Association, Jamaica’s first lobby group of marijuana cultivators. Like many at the meeting, he was downbeat about Marley Natural.
“It’s a case of Jamaica’s cultural legacy being exploited by US private equity groups to make money,” he told me. “The people at this meeting were mostly poor farmers for whom cannabis is a means of daily economic survival. But in the brave new world of legalisation, they are being swept away by the US cannabis cowboys. The Marley estate may be cashing in, but it’s hard to see how Jamaica will benefit at all. The prime beneficiaries will be rich investors from the US.”
Also at the meeting was Delano Seiveright, an up-and-coming politician and businessman pushing for the creation of a regulated weed industry. He later told me: “We are very proud to see Jamaica’s much revered Marley family getting into the business of ganja. However, there are concerns, from several quarters, that Jamaica doesn’t figure much in their plans.”
Maxine Stowe of the Rastafari Millennium Council said the Marley cannabis brand will “negatively impact future efforts in Jamaica to financially benefit from a legalisation movement gaining traction across the globe”. She said some Rastas are also irked that Marley Natural will be based in the US, not his hometown.
From what he said when he was alive, I think Marley’s adidas wearing ghost would not be entirely happy with the choices his beloved wife has made. He was a Rasta who rejected the “Babylon” of western oppression, materialism and greed; a dedicated follower of black nationalist Marcus Garvey. Would he really have wanted it this way?
“I’m definitely not buying the idea that the great man would have wanted to see his legacy hawked off in this way,” says Steve Rolles. “Sure, he used cannabis and spoke positively of its benefits, but I don’t remember him writing songs in praise of US business interests cashing in on Jamaican culture at the expense of Jamaica itself.”
His friend, Herbie Miller, the Institute of Jamaica’s musical director and curator of the Jamaica Music Museum, has said that Marley “was never about commercialism”. He was instead “a poet, humanist and nationalist as well as an Africanist and an advocate for improving the sociopolitical conditions of the Jamaican people and the world’s oppressed”.
“I don’t remember Bob Marley writing songs in praise of US business interests cashing in on Jamaican culture at the expense of Jamaica itself”
In Jamaica, there has been widespread acceptance that the revered Marley estate has every right to benefit from his name, selling the ubiquitous T-shirts, the £143 TrenchTown Rock headphones, Marley coffee and the rest. It’s also obvious that Marley’s family are not all together on the commercialisation of his image. Although largely unreported in the worldwide media, one of Marley’s many children, Julian, born in London in 1975, launched his own marijuana brand, Julian Marley JUJU Royal Premium Marijuana, in partnership with a small firm called Drop Leaf – just two days before his dad’s brand was announced.
Some see the deal with Privateer Holdings, which also owns Leafly, the world’s largest online medicinal cannabis info resource, as going against Marley’s principles.
Amashika Lorne, a 23-year-old International Relations student at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica told me: “Had Bob been alive today he would have ensured more of the profits of his estate reached the poor and Rastas especially. For so many years, Rastas and the poor have been victimised and targeted, charged and incarcerated for marijuana.
“So now, as the taboo is being finally lifted, the profits won’t be benefiting the people of Jamaica. I’m not for this business deal, but this should be a wake up call to our government to stop dragging its feet on marijuana legalisation. Jamaica should be a front runner, and it’s not in the race.”
Cannabis was introduced to Jamaica in the 19 century by colonial migrant labourers from India. It really took off. The drug became an integral part of the Rastafari movement in the 1930s. Now, around 22,000 football pitches worth of Jamaican land, mainly across small plots in mountainous areas inaccessible to road traffic, are used to grow the plant.
In January, Blaine Dowdle, head of one of Canada’s largest medicinal cannabis firms, came to Kingston to tell the Jamaican government that if marijuana was legalised it could earn billions of dollars a year by selling weed to Canada.
Bob Marley branded weed, grown in Jamaica by those who have been doing so for centuries, could have been a world-beater. At the same time it could have picked the island’s economy off the floor and provided positive payback to the Rastas whose lives have been made a misery by the police.
However, while Brendan Kennedy, chief executive of Privateer Holdings, informs us that “the Berlin Wall of cannabis prohibition is crumbling”, Jamaica is stuck in first gear. And if the economy is on its knees, what better place for ganja to come to the rescue?
“Legalisation is a positive and important step for a country whose culture is perhaps more associated with cannabis than any other,” says Steve Rolles. “My worry is that when it happens US business interests will sweep in and take over as they have for so many other areas of the Caribbean economy. Jamaica’s politicians need to make sure it’s done the right way, so that it works for the Jamaican people and enhances their cultural heritage, rather than exploiting and commodifying it for the benefit of US business interests.”