Jamaica is many things to many people - a gorgeous, green island surrounded by crystal clear water - a beautiful vacation spot. Or, a source of Blue Mountain coffee, and the exporter of the most potent rum around. But no matter what you think of when you think of Jamaica, even if it's not the first thing that pops into your mind, you think of marijuana.
Jamaica has the reputation as the weed capital of the world, the mental image of Rastas and reggae so firmly entrenched that we expect to see large plumes of musty smoke rising from the island as we fly in. This reputation is largely undeserved.
Yes, there is marijuana use in Jamaica, and yes, the Rastas love their ganja. But it's not as ubiquitous as pop culture would have us believe, and those reggae songs about the herb are mostly decriminalization protests.
It Came From India
Jamaica was a British Commonwealth, and sugarcane was its main export. By the late 17th century, most of the native population had been wiped out by European disease, and because sugarcane is a high-maintenance crop, the plantation owners needed labor. Enter the slave trade. Slaves were imported from West Africa to work the fields, producing a nearly perfected plantation system and turning Jamaica into the Caribbean's top sugar producer.
Slavery was abolished in the late 18th century, and most of the slaves left the plantations. Plantation owners still needed workers, but the former slaves preferred to work in their own small farms. Instead, the demand for labor induced immigrants from China and India to flood the island looking for work, and it seems the Indians brought marijuana (the term "ganja" is Hindu).
A Herb for the Poor
Marijuana use spread throughout the poor communities, namely the Asian contract workers and the communities formed by the former slaves. As a plant, it was easily grown in small quantities on private farms, and needed minimal processing before use - whereas rum required sugar (the main export, so expensive) and distillation prior to consumption. The accessibility of marijuana made it the intoxicant of choice for the poor communities, especially throughout the countryside, and everyone happily toked their way into the 20th century.
The black consciousness movement of Rastafari began in Jamaica in the 1920s. What began as an awakening to injustices against blacks snowballed into an entire movement that is today a legitimate religion. Marijuana use is a major component to many Rastas - but not all. They believe that marijuana is the "holy herb" from the Bible, and that it grew on the grave of King Solomon. It is smoked during religious ceremonies to deepen the personal connection with faith, aside from the narcotic effect. Counter to public assumption, Rastas do not walk around stoned all day - ganja use is very moderate and intoxication is not the point. The herb provides a spiritual connection and slightly uplifted outlook - if they just wanted to get wasted, there's plenty of rum instead.
Bob Marley's skyrocket to fame in the 1970s cemented "Jamaica=Marijuana" in the pop culture consciousness. True, he sang about it a lot, but it wasn't just about how much he liked it - they were folk songs, protests against insensible drug laws in the country at the time. Far from being one big smoke-out, Jamaica is currently much like the U.S. in its stance on marijuana - it's illegal, but they probably won't bother you as long as you keep it private. Unless you're a tourist - Jamaica doesn't want to be like Amsterdam, and has no desire for "pot-tourism". If a non-Jamaican is caught with marijuana, they will go to jail and have to pay a hefty fine.
So if you're looking for a beautiful tropical getaway, Jamaica is a great choice. If you're just looking for a place to get high in public, you're better off sticking to the U.S. - as of the 2012 election, Washington and Colorado have both decriminalized recreational marijuana use. And you don't even need a passport.