Ganja, hemp and bamboo: their roles in modern Jamaica


Sunday, October 07, 2018

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I had a friend who volunteered to oversee the completion of the National Stadium in the final stages before Independence. As the time came closer for completion, he phoned me one day in mid-May 1962 when I had just assumed the position of Minister of Development and Welfare with one of my responsibilities being sports. His response to my query about progress was, “Right now, a whole lot of things going on but it mix up like dog breakfast and we fighting to make the deadline”.

I have always remembered the expression “mix up like dog breakfast” because it describes a state of affairs that occurs frequently in Jamaica — projects that start off with much passion and sometimes fall short of getting to the finish line in time. Fortunately, the project above made the deadline.

The growing and selling of ganja for medical use has become overwhelmingly popular and Jamaica is trying to find the best way to deal with the pack of applicants for investment in Jamaican ganja, which is felt by some to be the best in the world. Many other countries are traversing the same path, so it's a tight run. The problem is that we were too slow in moving forward in the beginning and now the course is full of obstacles, much of which are inevitable.

To deal with the problems, Government has set up a committee to pave the way forward in the processing of applications to keep the project going. This committee, known as the Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA), has segregated the total process of applications into a number of procedures: planting, transporting and selling, being the most important. Each is highly regulated. After this long process has been completed, subject to a lot of complaints from applicants on the extent of time to arrive at a point of approval, a sigh of relief can be heard by those waiting in the area to “fly the gate”. But the real problem now becomes apparent.

The ganja to be legalised, cannabis/marijuana/weed by whatever name it is called, must have medical credentials with specific strains medically certified to deal with particular ailments. The authority which provides the certification must involve medically trained personnel who have to approve, or reject, the product produced.

So who and where are the medically trained personnel? Training involves a process of trial and error over a significant period of time. This is expected to expose unacceptable strains which are either due to original selection of wrong strain of ganja or to those parts of the products which have been contaminated by unclean conditions, or locations.

Cleaning this is a massive hurdle as it will require growing seeds or plantlets in greenhouses established to carry out testing by labs with scientific expertise and equipment costing US$4 to 5 million. These labs have to be operated by scientifically trained persons. None of these are yet on the horizon. Solutions have to be found largely among overseas medical personnel who have had a substantial qualification so as to prevent wrong prescriptions which could be harmful. Without the scientific approval, it would be a sizeable roadblock to exports which will virtually push the ganja industry to the back of the picture.

There is another roadblock at this stage. Given that ganja grown must be free of all contaminants, such as dirt, bacteria, and so on, if it's not free, it would be rejected. This level of cleanliness is costly because it has to be thorough. But it will require a different type of farmer, or retraining of the usual type who plants in the field. Selection of farmers with this type of ability is going to rule out from exports lot of individuals who have farmed ganja for years but not with this level of purity.

This requirement could cause social unrest unless it is handled carefully. A lot of misunderstandings can arise when the process of growth begins and it turns out that very small farmers have no place in the process of exports. Who is going to pacify them? Who is going to pacify the Rastafarians who have been growing the weed for decades, but not in a manner acceptable to the special thoroughness of this modern farming requirement? While still being useful domestically, it could be exported. This would exclude them from the growth in wealth.

Further, the size of small farms are only a few acres. Production of weed is usually sold to buyers who export. What is going to happen when farms as large as 20-40 acres appear on the scene? Is this going to be grounds for claim that ganja is now going to be a “big man” crop, leaving out the small farmers? There is plenty of room for a number of views to be involved.

When this situation was encountered in Agro 21, I came up with the concept of a “mother-farm” which was a centralised operation providing fertilisers, spray and other products useful for agricultural production. This was done through the mother-farm, along with supervision. The mother farmer would have to be at a higher level of training than the others. That raises the question of how many such farmers exist and who will do training. All of this will require specialised operators, a process to which great attention must be given if the programme is to run smoothly. This group will also need special financing for greenhouses.

Foreign investment will also need special explanation to those who consider the weed to be a Jamaican crop. When the certificates are to be given out by the CLA to Jamaicans, it is at that point that those who want to grow it alone will also need money to carry out a reasonable investment in land and equipment. With the ban on banks' commercial lending, what is the source of the funds for this part of the operation? A special fund must be created. There is a lot of ground yet to be covered before talking about an industry.

Medical ganja can be a salvation for Jamaica with the potential of very substantial earnings in foreign exchange. My suggestion is that Government find a czar to keep things moving and in line with acceptable practices, otherwise it will be another “mix up of dog breakfast”.


Hemp is another miracle plant which, at one point not long ago, was used as currency to settle outstanding debts at banks because of its value and demand. But it is also extremely versatile in a range of production.

Firstly, to deal with the objections which are likely to arise, hemp is very close in appearance to ganja. They might be called first cousins. But hemp has no psychedelic properties, which means that it does not produce the high-spirited feeling that ganja does. What it provides for, however, is the stalk being stripped to a near thread-like condition suitable for weaving, making it ready for production of paper, textile, clothing, or household needs.

Paradoxically, hemp was also the basic material in the ropes used by sailing vessels before the days of steamships when sails had to be hoisted. This made it indispensable. It was so critical to the industrial and agricultural sectors that in the war of European powers, in the early 1800s, Napoleon and allies like Russia, stopped Russian hemp from reaching England, thereby barricading much of the British navy by forcing it to cannibalise sails, ropes and riggings from other ships. The intent of Napoleon at that time was to force an end to the British blockade, a pivotal step in the war between countries of the European continent, England, and the United States.

Notwithstanding the vast range of products which could be made from hemp, the seeds were also of great value as oil for lamps until it was replaced by petroleum products.

Hemp was also remarkable in its versatility. Plastic plumbing pipes could be manufactured using hemp cellulose as the chemical feedstock replacing non-renewable coal or petroleum-based chemical feedstock. Hemp was also useful in building, painting and furnishing and became the world's number one resource in the building of houses. There are many more uses of hemp of which the items listed will indicate how versatile it was and continues to be although to a lesser extent.

Jamaica is an ideal hemp country and at one time a producer. Hemp is still in demand but a number of its uses have now been replaced.


Cutting down bamboo to produce items for the home and field cannot be the best way to go, when this can be done with hemp which is easier to replace than bamboo. Not only is the bamboo a beautiful adornment to the mountainsides, but its roots are firmly embedded in the soil, preventing erosion.

It would seem to be more realistic to create hemp plantations, which have a large number of uses, instead of destroying the bamboo. Surely NEPA and other environmental agencies should make strong statements against violating the forest. If bamboo was such an excellent product to use, this would have been done long ago in China which abounds in the growth of bamboo.

What this tells us is that between ganja (cannabis) and hemp, Jamaican can look forward to a rich future, providing that the work proceeds in an organised and unrelenting basis to grow these products in the best prescribed manner.

This could be the advent of a new future with virtually an inexhaustive resource to build foreign exchange and economic strength for a new economy.

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