Winston Donald – Cradle of Jamaica’s Marijuana Production & Illegal Export Trade: Jamaica is not only one of the world’s leading cultural centre but a country of great vista, panoramic views, history, and adventure. Few nations so small can boast of combined beauty, culture, interesting history and geography; fewer countries have a reputation for great commodities such as Blue Mountain Coffee, jerk pork, rum and marijuana fondly and colloquially referred to as ganja. In the illicit sphere of narcotics, Jamaica’s marijuana production was notorious especially for the first two decades after its independence from Britain.
Jamaica’s Marijuana Production – To North Americans and Europeans, Jamaica has been an intriguing haven for marijuana traffickers, smugglers, and smokers since the early 1960’s. Despite having a judicial system which handed out harsh penalties for the weed, Americans, in particular, were never deterred from visiting the ganja (marijuana) country. Drawn initially to her pristine geography, white sand beaches, and sunny clime, marijuana by the mid-1960’s was a major pull factor for white and black Americans. Outside the beaches, one of the real attraction to the culture was not being entertained by its popular music but rather the sampling of marijuana and making money from its export. This was facilitated by the deep salubrious plateau country which covers major marijuana cultivating villages called the Dry Harbour Mountain and access to flat sugar cane land for small aircraft landing.
The Dry Harbour Mountain of central Jamaica, at some 2500 feet above sea level provided an ideal environment for Lambs Bread ganja cultivation. Its ideal location created the genesis of the island’s prosperous export narcotics trade beginning in the mid-1960’s. It’s height above sea level, undulating topography and woody vegetation made it in some way the Appalachian Mountains of Jamaica and for years it was nature’s best-kept secret. It was here the peasantry and deep rural small farmers class produced a riotous profuse of the weed for the mid-1960’s to late 1970’s marijuana export trade which satisfied the crave and drug taste of North American smokers.
Although growing up as a child some six miles from these areas, our Calvinisticdriven Baptist heritage meant that we were sheltered from “Ganja people”. We were told they were bad people who were engaged in the illicit economic activity and easy money activity. In a sense, they were deemed to be our worst sinners. We were miles off tangent from the folks in these areas who reminded us of folks in the Appalachians who “violated” Federal and state laws. In fact, the terrain is almost the same as the Appalachian – distinct plateau, mountains, valleys and thick wet limestone forests. Years after when I returned to rural Jamaica, after attending high school in Kingston to begin working in the government sector, I decided to leave the comfort of my grandma’s home in the evenings after work and explored those villages and make a connect to the villagers. I came across many planters and traffickers who revealed the buccaneer like the life of those who were engaged in ganja cultivation. One who impressed me most was Bong John who was buried just two weeks ago. Bongo John introduced ganja to the Dry Harbour Mountain villages such as Aboukir and Murray Mountain. The story of Jamaica’s marijuana production and export was so interesting as were the people. I realized they were ordinary folks who desired to make life better for them and their families. After all, does anyone likes poverty? Marijuana cultivation and trading definitely had economic and social tenets.
My second observation of the region was one of a social reality. The Dry Harbour Mountain was the most ethnically diverse region of Jamaica. I discovered my interest in anthropology even though I had no intention to go beyond the rudimentary stage. I am not interested in scholarship nor academia, hence rudimentary social observation – the Dry Harbour Mountain is intriguing and diverse. It reflects the motto of Jamaica – “Out of Many One People.” Here you could find and still find people of African, Jewish, Irish and German mixed heritage. Names such as Ross, McCauley, McDonald, Worms, Schmidt, Depass, Cohen, Mittoo, Wisdom, Hellwig, Ulette, Higgins, Morrison, Grant, Cunningham, Shadeed, Khouri and Mortimer tells of the motley of Scotish, German, Irish, Jewish, and Lebanese surnames in a predominantly black country.
While marijuana still grows and can be seen in the villages and backyards comprising the region from Murray Mountains, McKenzie, Grants Bailey and Calderwood to Nine Miles ( Bob Marley’s birth place), it was the days of the 1970’s that were the golden days of ganja cultivation and trafficking.
Marijuana was religiously reaped beginning in October and November and the highlight of the trade was a story you want to hear repeatedly. How were traffickers so efficient to move the stuff from the hills to improvised airstrips created frequently from the flat strips on sugar cane farms owned by the plantation class of Jamaica in an era when cell phones were non-existent? How could players in the smuggling and trafficking business conduct sale with such trust and credit. This puzzled me, indeed it was a near mystery to me to this day.
Marijuana commerce and business were a bit complex, yet paradoxically conducted in simple transactional methods. White American drug dealers would approach hotel workers asking for names of marijuana planters living in the hills and having gotten all relevant information would travel to the mountains to see them and negotiated deals to buy and ship hundreds and thousands kilograms or pounds of the weed by Cessna airplanes. Those farmers who were successful in getting a “white man “ to do business with them would purchase from other small farmers in the Dry Harbour Mountains. In an era of honesty and gentleman transactions, credit was the order of the day. The hills men and peasantry would acquire thousands of pounds of marijuana on credit and make secret arrangement to fly it or ship it from Jamaica under the nose of the local police force. Although ships and boats were used the majority of marijuana shipment was by small airplanes, notably the ubiquitous Cessna. Now elderly and middle aged ganja farmers, the growers at that time would conduct secret meetings with “emissaries’ of drug bosses from abroad some of them Gambino and Patriarca crime family members. The dealers and marijuana buyers in the states would send someone to Jamaica to spot out the landing strips which occasionally were flat inland areas, roads on sugar cane estates, old World War 2 military airstrips or actual coastal roads and back roads of desolate communities, none paved and smooth like airports tarmacs. The Americans would arrange for the time and day of shipment, mostly a Sunday morning when folks were on their way to churches. Payment to the Jamaican farmers would be a deposit and the balance on the arrival of the drug in the USA. Obviously, some hills folks never got paid for the balance outstanding. It was the modus operandi of weed trafficking and all parties to this herb movement were guided by the agreement made, however unfair it may have seemed.
Perhaps there are faster persons on earth than those who loaded the marijuana planes . Such was the situations when Cessna planes came to Jamaica to collect marijuana from the Dry Harbour Mountain. They would fly to the hinterland or coast under the radar. They would land at planned locations where jute bags of marijuana lie hidden covered in the bush (mostly ferns from the wet limestone Dry Harbour forests) and heavy foliage. As soon as the plane land the doors were flung wide opened and the jute bags of the weed were instantaneously tossed inside. The activity only took seconds. Then the plane would take off so fast the police, if they were near, were ineffective in stopping these planes. We have to bear in mind that the most potent weapons possessed by police in the 60’s and 70’s were .38 revolvers and occasionally Remington shotguns.
A former Superintendent of Police confirmed to me that it was a fact that roads were blocked for a few minutes while planes descend, collect the drug and lifted in the sky, a few crashing into the sea. This often occurred on Sunday mornings and must have been a conversational piece in church – ganja planes alighting and taking off with bags of Lambs Bread weed, the roads blocked and folks being advised that there was an accident hence drivers should detour. A scampish activity it placed money in corrupt policemen pockets as only them could block the coastal and back roads.
Marijuana trafficking provided income to the Dry Harbour Mountain region of St. Ann so much that the quality of life was so much advanced compared to other areas of Jamaica. It created jealously as other Jamaicans were not privileged to the economic benefits but it developed communities and made working persons economically empowered providing the resources for improving homes and domestic infrastructure. It was the only region of Jamaica where non-professionals drove Cadillacs, E-Type Jaguars, Mercedes Benzs, Volvos and Ace Leyland Trucks. Murray, Aboukir Woods, McKenzie, Caldecarwood and other villages were the only place you could find the peasantry living with homes run with piped water, electrical generators, refrigerators and Persian rugs.
No wonder folks in the Dry Harbour Mountain, today dreamt for a return to the days of heavy trafficking of Lambs Bread marijuana from Jamaica to the United States. With the Jamaican government decriminalization of marijuana for amounts not exceeding two ounces or five plants, several persons living in those ganja producing areas are back in production. It is nostalgia all over again. It is in their DNA. Only a full conversion to Christianity like Bongo John can take away the ganja (marijuana) business from these people. They loved it badly. It is their way of life.
Contributed by: Winston Donald, District Historian, and Fine Art Columnist