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Jamaica’s Traditional Growers Demand Inclusion in Legal Market

CANNABIS CULTURE – “They are the traditional farmers, they’ve suffered and they’ve struggled. They must be included into the framework of the legal ganja industry.”

Ras Iya V, Chief Executive Member of the Westmorland Hemp and Ganja Farmers Association (WAGFA)

This was the sentiment shared by Ras Iya V, Chief Executive Member of the Westmorland Hemp and Ganja Farmers Association (WAGFA), board member of the Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA), long-time farmer and practicing Rastafrian. Since decriminalization of medical cannabis in 2015, the legal ganja industry in Jamaica now allows for the sale of medicinal cannabis and cannabis products by licensed distributors, to patients with a doctors’ recommendation or prescription The only legal locations are categorized as dispensaries for product sales only and Herb-houses, that sell and have a space for on-site consumption. 

The laws allow one to legally carry up to 2 ounces of plant and residents can propagate up to 5 plants on their own property. Rastafarians are allowed a further relaxation of laws and are able to grow and use the plant as a religious sacrament, but are not permitted to sell cannabis products commercially.

This has led to a divide between the traditional sources of ganja in Jamaica and the new breed of high-priced, pharmaceutical grade marijuana. Legal ganja producer’s have stringent regulations to abide by and their customers expect consistency and quality products. While ganja on the streets is never subject to such scrutiny, due to the savvy consumer, street weed is getting better. A lot better. 

Traditional Knowledge Is Key

A more knowledgeable public is emerging in Jamaica and its impact on the local industry will benefit everyone. “This is an industry with a lot of potential for Jamaica, but we have to do it the right way. We have to reduce the sources of supply for illicit traffickers by demonstrating the alternative livelihood available to individuals who have traditional knowledge and expertise in ganja cultivation,” said State Minister in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries, Floyd Green at an event held in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica in February. 

According to Ras Iya V, “the men are stepping up. They realise the viability of this being a legitimate industry and they want in”. Traditional farmers are used to a quick and “non-existent” outdoor operation. The tropical climate, lighting and soil composition are ideal for marijuana growth, but traditionally, the goal was to get seeds planted, grown and out to market. The clandestine nature of the operational procedures denied time for sufficient drying and curing of the buds. 

Supply The Demand

Strain Menu at Pineal Times, Main Street Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

“They don’t dry or cure the weed properly. The weed loses so much of its properties”. This is a persistent complaint voiced by travellers to Jamaica. The readily available ganja one buys on the streets of Jamaica doesn’t come in one variety and traditional cultivation techniques are not created equal. The decriminalization of ganja may not have led to an increase or decrease in non-legal production, but it has definitely increased the demand for quality products and some street peddlers are responding in kind. 

Low quality and uncured cannabis exists in large quantities throughout the island, but if you ask the right questions to the right person, you can enter the “underground” world of cannabis strain variety, hashish, edibles, tinctures and oils. What does this mean for budding dispensary businesses? “Our customers know the quality they expect and get from us. They know we carry consistent products, produced under the most stringent conditions to ensure a superior product”, says Leane Tomlinson, General Manager of Sensi Medical Cannabis House.

Competition Will Follow

Five years ago, the selection on the streets was whatever was on hand. However, those eyeing the potential of the industry are already making the move. Small distributors are now branding their products and carry popular strains like Gorilla Glue, Super Lemon Haze and Blueberry Kush. At times, the buds come nicely packaged and even branded with a logo and contact information. This didn’t actually happen accidentally. In 2015, the same year the Jamaican government decriminalized ganja, High Times Magazine partnered with WAGFA and Ras Iya V to stage the first Rastafari Rootzfest, which also hosts the Ganjamaica Cup awards. The Ganjamaica Cup awards were created as a way to categorize the different strains grown in Jamaica. The festival itself also offered training sessions and seminars to educate “grass-roots farmers of the specific requirements for medicinal grade ganja and how to transition into the legal framework”. Says, Ras Iya V.

Grassroots Foundation

Many of the growers attached to legal farms were hand-picked from local communities. 

According to Chung-Fa a former grass-roots farmer who is now the head grower at Global Cannalabs, Jamaica’s first legal ganja grow operation. “They came in knowing what they wanted to do and how to run the operation”. The company’s main market will be export, but they are expecting to open two dispensaries this year. “We are opening locations to cater to the local market and the market knows what it wants, we will cater to that demand” added Paul Glavine, CEO of the company. “We grow our plants to the international standards put forth by the CLA”.

Perhaps to even brand themselves completely separate from the local market, Jancana, a new entrant to the dispensary market, cultivates their own strains, with the effects of the herb, being the focal point. The company’s Marketing Consultant, Rainier Goubault says, “we’re selling medicinal cannabis. The consumer is very savvy and is aware of the medical effects of cannabis and that is what they ask for (… ) A patient coming in for anti-inflammation or sleep therapy may not know what strain will work, but they know the effect they want. That is what we provide for them”. Their strains fall in categories such as Joy for energy and Passion for focus.

In fact, most legal locations propagate their own strains, Sensi Medical Cannabis, popularly known as Sensi Medz, has a few popular strains such as Marigold, named after their parent company, Marigold Projects Jamaica Ltd. The signage on display categorizes strains in terms of effects as well. “We’re selling a medical product. Our customers want quality and consistency. They want to use something that will work and work the same way every time”. 

The Customer Is Always Right

This is where the dispensaries and herb-houses have the advantage. Despite significantly higher prices, the bud quality and consistency is on par or even better than the international marketplace and customers are open to paying the nhigher cost. The stringent guidelines from the CLA force the highest sanitary and procedural standards to be maintained at all times on all legal farms through to their distribution locations. Bruce Linton, Founder and Former CEO of Canopy Growth Corporation rates the CLA very highly, claiming “the CLA in Jamaica is one of the best licensing authorities in the world. They do it right”. 

The Jamaican government has advised small farmers to form cooperatives to best position themselves in the growing industry. Covid-19 has delayed this process, but the farmers are ready and waiting.

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