Nearly 50 years after reggae legend Peter Tosh first sang “Legalize It,” Jamaica has recognized the economic potential of perhaps its most famous homegrown industry.

Licensed medical dispensaries are popping up all over the island – but with the government opting for the decriminalization of ganja rather than full legalization (there are important differences), many questions remain. Here’s what you need to know about smoking weed legally in Jamaica.

Reforming the legal code, clearing the air

For many tourists, marijuana has long been an important if unspoken part of any Jamaica experience. Known universally in the country as ganja (or herb to Rastafari adherents), marijuana can seem as Jamaican as Bob Marley or Usain Bolt. The minute the disembark from their cruise ships, tourists will hear whispers from touts offering them a smoke, while vendors openly sell pre-rolled spliffs at dancehall street parties in downtown Kingston.

Until relatively recently, possession of even small amounts of ganja could land visitors in jail. But a wholesale revision of drug laws over the past 10 years has seen all that change. Concluding that ganja is a positive part of the country’s brand – and eying potential tax revenues from a newly legal industry – Jamaican authorities decided to embrace reform.

In 2015, the Jamaican government passed a series of important amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act, decriminalizing ganja and introducing licenses for its cultivation and sale. But since decriminalization isn’t quite the same as full legalization, what are the implications for visitors to Jamaica?

Profile image of an older man wearing a red, black, gold and green hat smokes ganja near a beach; smoking weed Jamaica
Smoking weed in Jamaica has been decriminalized, but not legalized. That nuance is important © Peeterv / Getty Images

Before you smoke marijuana in Jamaica, know the law

Since 2015, possession of up to two ounces (57g) of ganja is no longer a criminal offense. Carrying this amount in public can still attract a fixed penalty fine similar to a parking ticket – J$500 (around US$3) – but no criminal record will result. People under the age of 18 caught in possession may also be referred to the National Council on Drug Abuse for counseling. Possession of amounts over two ounces remains a criminal offense.

The possession fine does not apply to medical marijuana, including products purchased at licensed dispensaries. Possession of up to two ounces of weed by visitors for medical purposes is fully legal (with no ticket levied). Possession is also legal for sacramental purposes for followers of Rastafari.

As with cigarettes, smoking ganja in public places is prohibited, with a fixed fine of J$500. It is legal to smoke in licensed dispensaries, but smoking in private residences is no longer an offense.

Medical-marijuana dispensaries in Jamaica

Jamaica’s revised drug laws have allowed the creation of medical-marijuana dispensaries, the first of which opened in 2018. Equal parts doctor’s clinic, Amsterdam-style coffee shop and hipster boutique, these are currently the only places where travelers to Jamaica can legally buy cannabis products.

There are currently more than a dozen dispensaries in Jamaica, including in Montego Bay, Kingston, Negril, Falmouth and St Ann’s Bay near Ocho Rios. To buy products, ID such as a passport or driver’s license is required (over 18 only), as well as proof of your medical need to buy ganja. This can take the form of a doctor’s prescription from home or a consultation with an on-site medic – although some dispensaries currently allow self-certification by the completion of a medical form.

You’ll find a variety of products on offer, including marijuana buds, oil extracts and cartridges for vaping. The new dispensaries take ganja cultivation as seriously as wineries do their terroir. Nearly two dozen distinct Jamaican-grown sativa, indica and hybrid strains of the herb are grown for therapeutic and medicinal purposes on dedicated plantations.

The knowledgeable staff can talk you through each strain’s properties and relative concentrations of THC and CBD, the active ingredients in marijuana.

Don’t expect a cloud of smoke when you enter a dispensary: in-house smoking rooms are discreetly tucked away from the main consultation and purchase areas. Most also run their own cafes and juice bars, offering completely ganja-free refreshments.

Due to wider international restrictions on access to banking networks, businesses are cash-only – a reminder of the still-evolving legal situation in Jamaica and beyond.

Man holding fresh plant from marijuana field, Jamaica
Marijuana is grown on dedicated plantations in Jamaica – but if you’re offered a tour, decline it, since such visits are not legal © Getty Images / iStockphoto

Be aware of the dangers of marijuana in Jamaica

At a dispensary, discuss with the staff your requirements as well as your previous experiences with the herb. Some strains are notoriously strong, particularly when taken through a traditional Jamaican steam chalice.

Outside the dispensaries, unlicensed vendors are taking advantage of the new permissiveness of the ganja laws, and it’s not unusual to see space cakes or similar edible items openly for sale in cafes – or even infused into the butter in your lobster meal. Since strengths can vary widely, be very cautious.

Caution is also advised if anyone offers you a tour of a ganja plantation. Currently, these remain unlicensed and therefore illegal.

When leaving Jamaica, it’s vital to remember that it is strictly illegal to take any medical ganja product with you. Stick instead to the customs-friendly THC- and CBD-free hemp products sold at the dispensaries.

This article was first published Aug 14, 2019 and updated Mar 5, 2024.

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Photo taken in Spanish Town, Jamaica

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