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News / Churches & Religion

Nation OKs marijuana sacrament

Antigua and Barbuda PM discusses Rastafari faith

By LUIS ANDRES HENAO, Associated Press
Published: June 10, 2023, 6:20am
2 Photos
Ras Jah, a member of the Ras Freeman Foundation for the Unification of Rastafari, smokes cannabis from a chalice pipe during service May 14 in the tabernacle in Liberta, Antigua.
Ras Jah, a member of the Ras Freeman Foundation for the Unification of Rastafari, smokes cannabis from a chalice pipe during service May 14 in the tabernacle in Liberta, Antigua. (Jessie Wardarski/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

ST. JOHN’S, Antigua — The Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda recently granted Rastafari official sacramental authorization to grow and smoke marijuana that their faith deems sacred.

Rastafari have been persecuted and jailed for decades for their ritualistic use of marijuana. As public opinion and policy continues to shift in the U.S. and across the globe toward legalization of marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes, Rastafari are demanding more protections to curb persecution and ensure freedom of worship.

In an interview, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told The AP that his government seeks to prevent further discrimination of the Rastafari and bring respect to their culture and faith.

Questions and remarks have been edited for brevity.

Can you tell us about the sacramental rights to cannabis in Antigua and why it’s so important?

The initiative started with the legalization of marijuana. And we’re trying at the time to protect … our youth in particular, many of whom were … caught with a “spliff” and were criminalized, and their future prospects would have declined thereafter. So, we recognized that there was a need to intervene and to decriminalize the use of marijuana to protect our youth in particular, and to reduce the jail population. And then we subsequently moved quickly to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes … and thereafter we went the extra mile, which I believe most countries have not implemented — to legalize the use of marijuana for sacramental purposes.

We pride ourselves as an all inclusive government, and we believe that we have to provide a space for everyone at the table, irrespective of their religion. … We believe that we have to be inclusive, just as we have recognized other faiths, we think that it’s absolutely important for us to also ensure that the Rastafari faith is also acknowledged, and they too should be given the opportunity to worship. ”

Earlier this year, you met with Rastafari groups and granted them legal licenses from your country’s medical cannabis authority to grow the plant for religious purposes.
You told them: “We have adopted many European and non-European religions and we have a Pan-African religion … and instead of embracing it, we have sought to destroy it.
.” What can you tell us about that?

Thousands of religions have been developed all around the world, many of which we have actually imported. And why can’t we embrace our own? This is a Caribbean faith, a Caribbean religion. And not only should they stand their ground, but they should seek to export their religion beyond the shores of the Caribbean. The Rastafari movement preaches brotherly love. And I’m talking about the purity of the religion here. … But if we look in them strictly at the values of Rastafari, they’re promoting … brotherly love, good health, even their diet, which is plant-based, is something that can help all of humanity.

What can you tell us about the persecution of the Rastafari for their ritualistic use of marijuana?

When you look at Rastafari within the Caribbean for the last several decades … they were castigated or brutalized or killed, and they stood their ground to the extent that many of their practices are now being embraced globally. Who would expect that there’d be a global movement today to move towards the decriminalization and certainly the legalization of marijuana or cannabis globally? And I think that the Rastafari movement in the Caribbean should take credit for that global development. In the case of Antigua and Barbuda, we have created a space for a form of reparatory justice for Rastafari. So, for example, there’s a cannabis company here by the name of “Grow.” And what we did for them is that … we have waived the licenses because Rastafari has a significant percentage ownership in that company … and by waiving those fees at an annual basis, you’re looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in license fees that we’re waiving as a form of reparatory justice, acknowledging the fact that they’ve been discriminated against, they’ve been marginalized. As I said, several of them would have died at the hands of law enforcement. And I just think that it’s the right thing to do.