More than 40 years after reggae legend Peter Tosh sang 'Legalize It', Jamaica is finally recognizing the economic potential of its 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, many questions remain. Here's what you need to know about smoking weed legally in Jamaica.
Clearing the air
For many tourists, marijuana has long been an important if unspoken part of the 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. Touts whisper in the ears of tourists straight off the cruise ship to offer them a smoke, while vendors openly sell pre-rolled spliffs at dancehall street parties in downtown Kingston.
Until recently, possession of even small amounts of ganja could land visitors in jail. But a wholesale revision of drugs laws has seen all that change. Jamaica has decided that ganja is very much part of the country's brand and the potential tax revenues from a home-grown industry aren't something to be passed up.
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 decriminalization isn't quite the same as full legalization, so what are the implications for visitors to 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, of 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 larger amounts remains a criminal offense.
The possession fine does not apply to medical marijuana, including products purchased at a licensed dispensary. Possession of up to two ounces of weed by visitors for medical purposes is legal. Possession is also legal for sacramental purposes for followers of Rastafari.
Smoking ganja in a public place is prohibited, as it is with cigarettes, 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.
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Medical marijuana dispensaries
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.
At the time of writing, there are four dispensaries in Jamaica – Island Strains in Montego Bay, Epican in Kingston and Kaya in both Falmouth and St Ann's Bay. To buy products, ID such as a passport or driving 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.
A variety of products are offered, 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 on their own plantations for therapeutic and medicinal purposes.
The knowledgeable staff can talk you through their 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.
At a dispensary, discuss with the staff your requirements as well as your previous experiences. 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 infused in butter in your lobster meal. Be careful, the strengths can vary widely.
Caution is also required if offered ganja plantation tours. Currently, these remain unlicensed and therefore illegal.
When leaving Jamaica it's important 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.