Jamaica is probably more plagued by bad media about safety than it is by violent crime that affects tourists. Many travelers fear the worst and avoid the country; those who do make it here are far more likely to come away with positive impressions than horror stories. Petty crime is the most serious issue, although some travelers may be more concerned with the increasingly fluid legality of ganja.
While areas including Spanish Town and some parts of Kingston are best avoided due to gang trouble, crimes against tourists have also dropped greatly, and the overwhelming majority of visitors enjoy their vacations without incident.
Travel advice is common sense: keep hotel doors and windows locked at night, and lock car doors from the inside while driving. Don’t open your hotel door to anyone who can’t prove their identity. If you’re renting an out-of-the-way private villa or cottage, check in advance to establish whether security is provided.
Carry as little cash as you need when away from your hotel. Keep the rest in a hotel safe, and don’t flash your valuables (particularly smartphones).
Ganja (marijuana) is everywhere in Jamaica and you’re almost certain to be approached by hustlers selling drugs. Cocaine is also widely available (Jamaica is a major trans-shipment point for the Colombia–US route), along with hallucinogenic wild mushrooms. The globalization of the drugs trade has undoubtedly helped fuel gang violence in Jamaica.
While ganja has been decriminalized, other drugs are strictly illegal and penalties are severe. Roadblocks and random searches of cars are common, undertaken by well-armed police in combat gear. Professionalism is never guaranteed, and ‘dash’ – extortion – is often extracted to boost wages. Drug checks at airports can be particularly strict.
Ganja is an integral part of life for large sections of Jamaica's population – whether as a recreational toke or Rastafari sacrament – though it has long been illegal. In 2015, however, the Jamaican parliament decriminalized possession. Possession of up to 2oz (56g) is now treatable in the same manner as a parking offense, garnering a fine of up to US$100 but no criminal record. Full legalization is on the cards, if not immediately imminent. For now, the only way to buy ganja legally is with a permit from the Health Ministry if you have a prescription for medical marijuana.
While some travelers are keen to seek it out, even those wanting to avoid it are unlikely to get through their trip without at least a whiff of secondhand smoke. You'll undoubtedly be approached by people offering to sell you ganja, whether a 'nudge wink' hustler, or a vendor at a dancehall street party openly selling it alongside candies and rum. If you want to smoke, we still recommend doing so discreetly, at your hotel. Some local strains are particularly strong, and tourists have reported suffering harmful side effects from ganja, especially from ganja cakes and cookies.
Jamaica's tourism board already sponsors the Rastafari Rootz Fest, which hosts the Ganjamaica Cup for growers, and come legalization, ganja tourism will undoubtedly become a big thing. But while we hear of winery-style 'tasting' tours to ganja plantations, if you’re hiking in the Jamaican backcountry and come across a field of ganja, it's best to give it a wide berth for now unless you're with a trusted local companion – Jamaicans are fiercely protective of these secret spots and there’s a good chance they will loudly (and perhaps aggressively) demand you leave the area.
Usually the traveler’s biggest problem is the vast army of hustlers (mostly male) who harass visitors, notably in and around major tourist centers – Montego Bay, Negril and to a lesser extent Ocho Rios.
Be polite but firm with unwanted advances; never ignore them, which is taken as an insult. Aggressive persistence is the key to their success and trying to shake them off can be a wearying process. Hustlers often persist in the hope that you’ll pay just to be rid of them. If harassment continues, seek the assistance of a tourist police officer or the local constabulary.