From email@example.com Sat May 27 12:19:51 2000
Copyright 2000 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Move Afoot to Recognise Rastarianism as Bona Fide Religion
By Wesley Gibbings, IPS, 27 may 2000
PORT OF SPAIN, May 25 (IPS) - Moves to officially recognise Rastafarian practices in the Caribbean have gained momentum in places such as Jamaica where the legal affirmation of the faith is being proposed, and in St Vincent and the Grenadines where the government is proposing legislation to protect the dreadlocks of jailed Rastas.
Painful questions surrounding some Rastafarian practices, the ritualistic use of marijuana in particular, however, remain major bugbears for legislators interested in creating a less oppressive environment for the Caribbean-born faith.
In Jamaica, where it all began, there is the added difficulty of Rastas who believe they are entitled to "reparation" for what they describe as the brutality meted out to them over the years. In this regard, newly-appointed Jamaican Public Defender, former Ombudsman Howard Hamilton, is widely thought to have tread on dangerous ground by declaring that the rights of Rastas were among his main priorities and that he will pursue the faith's formal acceptance as a religion.
"They have walked the walk and they have earned the right to have their faith sanctioned as a religion," he said immediately after being sworn in last month.
In St Vincent, meanwhile, Health Minister Joseph "Burns" Bonadie announced two weeks ago that he planned to follow-up on a year-old recommendation by retired jurist Frederick Smith that Rastas should be allowed to keep their hairstyles in prison.
Such an option does not immediately exist in Trinidad and Tobago though the 160-year old Prisons Act ("the 1848" to prison officers) makes exceptions for the hairstyles of women and Muslims and, according to Prisons Officers Association General-Secretary Michael Mollineau, creates space for a similar concession to Rastas.
Popular Trinidadian Rastafarian businessman, Nyabinghi (Brian De Four), said that while he thought Rastas should benefit under such a law, a distinction should be made between those who wear dreadlocks as a style and those who do so for religious purposes.
"You have a lot of people, young drop-outs in particular, who feel that the easy way out is to grow their hair and say they are Rasta," he said. "But they need to know that this is more than that."
"There is need to raise the consciousness of people about Rastafarianism," he said.
But while the question of Rastafarian dreadlocks appears closer to broader consensus, marijuana use by the community remains a highly contentious issue, notwithstanding a softening of positions in some quarters.
In a move not directly related to the practices of Rastas, the Guyanese government considerably eased judicial penalties for marijuana possession last year through an amendment to the country's 1988 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. Where once the possession of under five grams of marijuana could have led to a jail sentence of between three and five years, community service is now among the less drastic options of the court.
In Jamaica, the government was mandated by the Senate last October to establish a broad-based national commission to examine, among other things, the decriminalisation of the possession of marijuana "for personal and medicinal uses".
This followed a September resolution by the ruling Peoples National Party (PNP) that a national commission be established "to consider the legal, medical, economic and socio-cultural aspects of ganja use".
Region Three of the party had originally wanted a resolution calling for the full legalisation of the drug.
People like Trinidad Rastafarian Ras David, who works full-time as a clerk in a state company here, but who also plants and sells marijuana, says the use of marijuana is a sacred practice of all Rastas. He complains that the price of marijuana has risen astronomically in the last two years as a result of police raids on marijuana fields which have led to an increase in imports from Colombia and St Vincent.
"I am sure that if they leave us alone, we will see less youngsters on the streets," he said. "Because the herb brings peace, you will even see less bandits and thieves."
Vincentian Junior Cottle, who led a series of demonstrations by a group which called itself the Committee of Concerned Citizens and Marijuana farmers of St Vincent and the Grenadines at the height of US-assisted raids there in 1998, said the marijuana trade created jobs and was important to the island's economy.
He claimed in an interview with this reporter at the time that prior to the raids, more than 12,000 acres of land were under marijuana cultivation, employing more than 8,000 persons directly and indirectly.
Since then, Cottle has gone on to form the group - Alternative Development for the Advancement of People (ADAP) which now operates under the umbrella of the United Front for Progress (UFP) which marched in Kingstown against the James Mitchell administration last month.
"What has happened since then (1998) is that we have changed focus and we are now looking at wider issues such as discrimination in the country," he said. "This includes discrimination against Rastafarians."
"To us the marijuana issue is now secondary when it comes to our overall agenda," he said. "We also have to work on transforming the economy from one that is more or less dependent on marijuana cultivation to one that will provide alternative employment for people," Cottle said.
Law enforcement officials are, however, quite convinced that the cultivation and sale of marijuana remain more than just the function of Rastafarian ritual.
When, for example, Independent Senator Trevor Munroe moved his resolution in Jamaica to examine the decriminalisation of the possession of marijuana for personal and medicinal uses, there was the charge that it would have only assisted in the protection and growth of "big business".
Paul Chang, who heads the National Alliance for the Legalisation of ganja, has proposed "ganja bars" and special stalls at concerts where the herb can be sold. Caribbean Rastafarian groups have however tended to focus on the liberalisation of marijuana laws to facilitate its free use on religious grounds, and in 1998, lobbied a United Nations Drug Conference to make the distinction between marijuana and "hard" drugs.
They have since been emboldened by the 1999 report of the (US) White House Office of Drug Control Policy which gave marijuana a virtual clean bill of health and stated that there was little evidence to support the view that it acted as a "gateway" to the use of harder drugs.
Rastas also point to the successful development of Canasol and Asmasol in Jamaica - both derived from the marijuana plant - and which have proven effective for the treatment of glaucoma (Canasol) and bronchitis and asthma (Asmasol).
Ras David said that while the rights and rituals of relatively small religious groups such as the Orishas and Baptists have received official affirmation in Trinidad and Tobago, the faith that was once considered to be one of the most unifying forces in the Caribbean continues to be denied true recognition.
[c] 2000, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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