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The Cold War Killed Cannabis As We Knew It. Can It Rise Again?

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

1. The ghosts in the ganja fields

The armed men may have looked dangerous, but the visitor knew better. The men with the guns held them not as threat but as defense, defense against a world that had shown them time and again they needed one. Besides, the Good Doctor came to the ganja fields as a friend, with a very simple proposition: Allow access to your cannabis crop for examination and the Doctor will improve your yield and make you more money. He did not want money for his services, nor did he want any of the crop—a grower for 20 years, he had no issue cultivating and consuming his own. He was here for the ghosts.

Peppered among the rows of sweet, citrusy plants were the fluffy buds his forerunners had hacked and trimmed, cured and smoked. Ganja was the glue of the working class in the West Indies starting in the middle of the 19th century, when the British shipped an influx of Indian indentured workers to Jamaica as replacements for slave labor once the practice was outlawed. The West Africans who had been forced there by the British had already brought some of the world’s finest landrace cannabis—cannabis that naturally occurs in the environment, not bred by humans—from along the equator in Africa’s lush fields. When the Indian, and later the Chinese indentured workers arrived with their dense, sticky flowers from the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountain range, the plant became the cohesion of Jamaican culture.

Despite Jamaica’s global reputation, local scientists like Dr. Machel Emanuel were haunted by the knowledge that the plants growing today on the hidden mountainside trails weren’t the same plants his ancestors smoked. 

Cannabis is dioecious, so if a male plant from the Netherlands spends time near a female plant in Jamaica, the resulting seeds will yield something entirely new. The white men who had been traveling to the West Indies kept bringing their inferior crops to corrupt what had already been thriving for centuries. Over time, the plants started to look different than they used to; smell differently and carry effects that underwhelmed the indigenous cannabis users of the West Indies. 

After the Americans arrived with their helicopters and herbicidal warfare, poisoning water supplies and slaughtering farmers, the remaining landrace plants started to disappear from the countryside. Fearing they’d be the next to die or lose their livelihoods, ganja farmers adopted hybridized European plants that had higher yields, shorter grow cycles, and, most importantly when hiding from a helicopter, only grew less than half the height. 

But somewhere survived the original cannabis of this island, those plants that had not been bred, purposely or accidentally, to be more profitable or less conspicuous. The plants that had not been burned by the Americans trying to deny their real or imagined enemies in Moscow or Kingston the financial benefits. 

Dr. Emanuel had traveled to these fields specifically in search of these living fossils.

He leaned in and breathed in the aromas, the plant’s natural defense system against predators and a boon for the humans who consume it, and sought out the familiar piney, sweet scent of the Lambsbread of his childhood, that strain smoked and popularized by Bob Marley before it disappeared soon after the 1980s. 

America fought a war here. The Rastafari were the enemy because of the ganja. It was the ganja that embarrassed the Americans and the British before them, the plant that grew so bountifully that the farmers could trade it for guns to arm the people who fought for their island, against the people who had come to exploit it. Between 1975 and the present day, the country of Jamaica has seen immense population growth. An island of about 2 million people in 1975 holds nearly 3 million today. And yet during that time period, the Rastafari have declined in volume by tens of thousands. There are fewer of them now than there were then, despite an overall population growth of 50 percent. Migration patterns come and go, and it’s common to reduce the proportion of an ethnicity or group of people. But the volume should not reduce. The volume only reduces when something happens. When there is something to flee, or something that got you before you could flee. 

These stories are not hard to find, now. But the Americans up north do not ask, because they don’t know. Nobody in America bothered to second-guess the reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post about the violence perpetrated by the dreadlocked men. Nobody ever bothered to ask how the Rastafari became public enemy number one in the War on Drugs.

So there Dr. Emanuel stood, face-to-flower with a nine-foot tall cannabinoid time capsule, preserved and hidden away from the men who seemed hellbent on destroying it. After some potency tests and a short conversation with the farmers, the Good Doctor retrieved the seeds and thanked them before starting the treacherous hike home.

2.  What the hell is bauxite anyway?

Kingston, JamaicaMay 22, 1973Telegram from Jamaican Embassy to Department of State, 2300Subject: The Little Boy With His Finger in the Dyke

Summary: There appears to be some slippage in the bauxite/alumina industry here in Jamaica in its relations to the Government of Jamaica.[...]4. I asked [Jamaican Prime Minister Michael] Manley about the previously reported utterances of the Minister of Mining Allan Isaacs. Manley merely shrugged his shoulders expressing disinterest in Isaacs and his statements, but once again he indicated the decision and the future of the bauxite industry lay solely with him.5. It is possible that with an air travel card, $500 in cash, a week on the road, and a little arm twisting and selling, I can cure this problem in the short run at least. One wonders, like the story of the little boy with his finger in the hole in the dyke, whether it is not time to get some other hand, some other fingers, and some other thinking into this plugging process.6. Comment: The water’s rising.

Vincent De Roulet, American Ambassador to Jamaica

Bauxite isn’t even one of the better-looking minerals (it resembles a lower-end tile you might settle for in a guest bathroom), but in 1973 Henry Kissinger, then the Secretary of State under Richard Nixon, launched a covert trade war in order to gain unfettered access to Jamaica’s rich bauxite mines. Jamaica was supplying up to 60 percent of America’s bauxite supply at the time, and bauxite is the main source utilized when manufacturing aluminum. 

It wasn’t just Jamaica. Guyana is a small country in South America, but it’s culturally and historically associated with the Caribbean; its politics were inseparable from the Manley government of Jamaica at the time, including involvement in the exact same trade wars that would come to define the back half of the Cold War. The linkage was bauxite, that same brown lump that millions of Americans tossed back every Sunday in the form of aluminum since the can was introduced in 1958. Guyana already had experience with the CIA once when the Agency orchestrated the coup overthrowing a Marxist regime in 1964, but the Agency took its foot off Guyana’s throat for long enough in the 1970s that a socialist movement took hold. In fact, Guyana was ahead of Jamaica and Michael Manley: In 1974, it nationalized its bauxite production.

So the two richest bauxite deposits in the world were set to cooperate and form an alliance not necessarily against the West, but with their own interests first. Manley was a union man, and his vision was of a union between developing nations to win fair economic conditions from the megapowers in Europe and the United States. Neither of these things were in the best interest of the United States, who wanted to leverage the aid that they were providing to the region as a sort of ransom over the bauxite deposits.

And yet, while there was a logical need for aluminum in the American economy, the thought had to occur to at least one of the many journalists doing incredible work covering the fraught trade negotiations with a series of small nations they’d only just now heard of: What the fuck did Henry Kissinger want with all that aluminum?

It wasn’t until 1994, when the Manhattan Project was declassified, that it made any sense. The rare metal gallium is a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. Namely, gallium bonds with plutonium to form an alloy that helps stabilize its delta phase and allows it to be shaped, thus creating the pit at the core of a nuclear weapon. Gallium is produced from bauxite ore. Kissinger didn’t start the process of destroying Jamaica and Guyana in 1973 because he wanted to make cheaper Pepsi cans. He did it because he wanted to make more bombs for less money.

In January 1976, knowing that there was a hopeless election on the horizon for the Republicans, the CIA and State Department made a move that would help them build for the future. They called in George Herbert Walker Bush to serve a lame-duck term as the first openly partisan director of the Agency, until rising star Jimmy Carter inevitably took over the big job. Carter had some unpopular ideas about reducing the influence of intelligence operations overseas, particularly in the developing world. Bush and the boys had one year to create and embed in the Caribbean a network of anti-communist killers so deep that the incoming administration could never pry it free. And so Bush led the Agency through a set of all their greatest hits in Venezuela, Cuba, Guyana, Jamaica.

3. Someone actually reads Penthouse for the articles

“However, several other former C.I.A. officers said that, while the agency was wary of telling its American journalist-agents what to write, it never hesitated to manipulate the output of its foreign-based 'assets.' Among those were a number of English-language publications read regularly by American correspondents abroad and by reporters and editors in the United States.”

—December 26, 1977, New York Times, No Byline

Everything came to a head not because of an active assassination plot or a bloody conflict, but because of a softcore porno mag. The article “Murder as Usual,” published in the December 1977 issue of Penthouse, claimed that Henry Kissinger offered Michael Manley a massive sum of federal aid in exchange for Manley dropping his support for Fidel Castro. 

The story was double-bylined by John Cummings, a notable JFK reporter at Newsday, and a lesser-known writer, also at Newsday, named Ernest Volkman. Volkman was the lead reporter on the story, and it was Volkman who suffered the consequences, not because his story was wrong—it wasn’t—but because the CIA couldn’t stop its own leaks. All it could do was shut down the people who received them.

A declassified memo of a conversation between President Gerald Ford and Kissinger reveals that, in 1975, Kissinger was fed up with then–CIA Director William Colby for the leaks that were coming out of the Agency, going so far as to say that he advised White House counsel Philip Buchen not to say anything incriminating about the reports to others in the government. Kissinger told Ford it was time to install someone who could better seal the place off from interlopers, which is how Bush Sr. got the gig. According to Volkman, the Jamaicans had become such a massive problem to the American government that Kissinger had issued a rather oblique but powerful directive: “Do something.”

The CIA took what was then a fairly unprecedented step: It issued a proactive denial, picked up by The Washington Post in November 1977 the month before the article even ran in Penthouse. Clearly, the Agency was extremely concerned about the contents of the report and how the Manley government would react to it, considering that to the larger American public, it would have otherwise likely flown under the radar.

Volkman was swiftly reprimanded by his then-employer Newsday. The reporting in the national press at the time was that he had been “fired,” with very little elaboration, the implication being that his story had enough bogus elements to warrant it. But he wasn’t fired. He was reassigned because Kissinger called the executive editor of Newsday and complained about Volkman’s reporting. The paper complied despite union protests, defending its decision by stating that Volkman had “violated freelance rules” when he wrote for Penthouse. Volkman denies that he was demoted, but did confirm that Kissinger was so angry with the story that he threatened to sue for libel. Forty-four years and many declassifications later, it’s clear why Washington was so shaken: Everything Volkman reported can be found, and verified.

One memo, dated August 17, 1976, puts it in fairly plain language:

“Outside the covert action arena, Wells recommends offering Manley significant economic assistance as an inducement to stay out of the Socialist camp and keep his distance from Castro. David Lazar believes that the amounts involved are simply not realistic and doubts that they would in any event buy much good will from Manley.

"The success of Cuban initiatives in the Caribbean—especially in Jamaica and Guyana—is worrisome. It certainly deserves some high priority attention by the DDO which should be encouraged to develop a covert action program for OAG consideration. You might probe Wells on how this paper is coming at the Working Group meeting.”

Volkman got reassigned in 1978 and, when asked if Kissinger was behind it, was quoted as saying, “If it quacks like a duck…” The rest of the newsroom was less diplomatic about it, though only in quotes they wouldn’t put their names to. If you were writing about Jamaica and you weren’t working for Kissinger, you had to grab your tackle box and go fish in the little pond until the sharks were done.

From 1973–76, Kissinger and the U.S. State Department held the entire Jamaican economy hostage over bauxite negotiations, all while squeezing them on federal aid loans for a rural education program that was one of Manley’s signature victories. Kissinger is cited in multiple memos authorizing them withholding signatures on USAID loans from the Jamaican people until “the bauxite situation improves,” and only changed his mind in September 1976 when he expressed concern it was giving Manley too much anti-capitalist ammunition. Despite the rise in poverty on the island and the accompanying political violence, Manley would win a decisive victory in the elections, even picking up additional seats.  

There were multiple assassination attempts on Manley in the year of the 1976 election against Edward Seaga, leader of the center-right and pro-America Jamaica Labour Party. One occurred during a diplomatic visit to Canada that state department memos reference as putting Manley on edge about the CIA’s ongoing involvement. Rumors about Manley’s involvement with Russia or turning toward communism—a charge Manley repeatedly denied, as an avowed socialist working to unite the islands to create better economic conditions—started springing up more frequently. Violence erupted in the streets between supporters of the two main parties. CIA-affiliated assets brought down a Cubana Airlines plane in October 1976 that was headed for Jamaica carrying the entire Cuban national fencing team that had just won gold, and 12 Guyanese nationals. Bob Marley was shot in 1976 by several men, one of whom was believed to be Lester Lloyd Coke, a long-suspected CIA asset who was acting as the JLP’s primary political violence instrument from 1976–80 and would eventually go on to form the most powerful cocaine cartel in the world. In retrospect, especially given how the remainder of the Cold War would go, the entire thing reads like a satire of the CIA coup playbook. If you were reading the big American papers, you wouldn’t know a single thing about it and, in fact, might get the impression that Manley and his socialist economic policies were behind all of the violence in Jamaica.

It wasn’t just the American papers. Volkman recalls a group of alleged “leftist student activists” arriving in Jamaica to “identify the active CIA agents,” which felt silly to those on the island, given that CIA personnel was so well-known locally that the agents may as well have worn nametags. The station chief himself would pull his gun in public if he thought any of the Jamaican men were looking at his wife. After the activists made their identifications, there was one attack at the home of the acting station chief, whose family had been flown home just prior to the announcements. An unidentified man placed a grenade far enough his door that it did no damage to the building, and a handful of shots from an automatic weapon were fired nowhere near its living spaces. After the attack ended, the CIA man made a call, but he didn’t call the police. He called The Daily Gleaner.

The Gleaner, American government’s propaganda apparatus in Jamaica, had been in place long before 1976. Since 1909, Jamaica’s largest newspaper had been under the management of the Ashenheim family; Sir Neville Ashenheim acted as the first-ever ambassador to the United States from Jamaica under John F. Kennedy. Ashenheim did not relinquish his role as acting chairman of The Gleaner while he was serving in Washington, despite his close relationship to the American intelligence community that, as of 1961, had started broadcasting Cold War propaganda throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. To say that the American government orchestrated a coup of Jamaican media during the Manley years would falsely imply that the American intelligence apparatus had ever lacked control of it.

Manley would eventually lose the 1980 elections. The American press framed the scenario just as Kissinger and Bush had designed it: Jimmy Carter was giving Manley everything, and still it wasn’t enough. No mention of the murder plots, the crashed airliners, the coup attempts throughout the region. It’s best encapsulated in a deeply humiliating piece by the Washington Post editorial board in July 1980, in which editors both scoff at the idea of the CIA intervening while accusing Manley of being the one who is a threat to destabilize his own government:

“On the exchange of destabilization charges, it is hard to be sure. Some Jamaicans do believe that Cubans, with their local supporters (witting and unwitting), are in a position to create the chaos that would let Mr. Manley declare a state of emergency and suspend elections — Mr. Manley denies any such intent. What is more certain is that the Cubans have established a position in Kingston that helps them throughout the English-speaking Caribbean.

"To credit charges that the CIA is trying to 'destabilize' Jamaica, however, you have to believe that Jimmy Carter and his Caribbean point man, Andrew Young, are behind such a campaign. We don't believe it. We think that Jamaica has never had a greater need for fair and free elections.”

Seaga won control of the government three months later. With Reagan in power and the network Bush Sr. set up still in place, the rest of the Caribbean was a breeze. Bauxite from the two richest sources in the world was ready to be pillaged; it was finally safe from Soviet hands. All it took was an escalation of violence that ended up quadrupling the murder rate in Jamaica between 1975 and 1980.

Seaga didn’t waste any time cashing in. Despite the supposed concern in the American press and business worlds over the ongoing violence, a bunch of American banks and financial institutions immediately approved about $190 million annually for the Seaga administration to aid in economic development in Jamaica. When the dust settled after a fraudulent election in 1983, the Jamaica Labour Party had claimed every single seat in Parliament. 

In August 1983, as if to bury any lingering doubt about what was really happening, The New York Times and writer Peter Stone published a story detailing all the money that newly formed consultancies by Kissinger were making while advising companies about foreign investments. The unrest in Jamaica was waved off as a pretty meaningless thing, at least as far as business interests go. When telling the Times why he believed that American business could trust the direction that Jamaica is headed, former Deputy Director of the CIA turned consultant Ray S. Cline had one thing to say.

“Eddie Seaga is a friend of mine,” he said about his fellow Harvard man. 

Seaga was more commonly known in Jamaica by the graffiti scrawled across burnt-out buildings: CIAGA.

4. Operation Condor flies home

Off a dirt road in the emerald forests of 1979 Oregon, the sun reflected off the trichomes coating the leaves and buds of the Colombian Gold and Hindu Kush arranged in tidy rows, milky white tentacles reaching towards the sky and curling to maximize exposure to the sunlight. Inside each of them were concentrated bursts of the stuff that medicinally and spiritually had served generations of men and women and children, but Jack (not his real name) was mostly focused on the money. The trichomes were cloudy and some of them were starting to turn golden, so harvest time was just a few weeks away. Soon it would be payday, and time for Jack to bring up managers and A&R guys for rock bands from California to sample his product and give him enough money to keep the operation running.

When he heard the choppers, at first he thought it was just the paranoia. There had been rumors about random raids in the area among the pot farmers who made their keep. It didn’t happen often, though, because to that point it didn’t seem much like the American government cared about marijuana.

When Jack heard the chainsaws, he knew it wasn’t paranoia and fled into the woods. He didn't know who they were—it could've been anyone—but he remembers what it looked like: Two choppers, four guys in each, dropped down via rope with chainsaws and a massive tarp. The cannabis plants were cut, tossed on the tarp, and pulled away, row by row. He watched for about 20 minutes before he realized that if they decided to seek out more plants in the forest they’d be pleasantly surprised to bust the grower himself and make the front page of the papers. 

Jail would’ve been more socially stimulating, at least. He didn’t talk to his plants, but Jack spent most of his time with them, smoking a joint in the morning (the Colombian, of course, for its buzzing energy) before the day’s watering began, checking the soil, trimming or cutting foliage to help buds grow stronger colas. In the evening he retired to a small cottage to smoke another joint (the Kush this time, for untroubled sleep) and listen to baseball on the radio. He never felt lonely, just happy to finally be some crude definition of free, up until that afternoon when he was reminded that he wasn’t. 

He came to Oregon from out east, had been taking a train from his home in Connecticut to his job at CBS in New York every morning and then back every night until he realized that if things went well, that’s what he would be doing every day for 20 years. He freaked. When he went west, he said the right things, but he knew the pot was what he wanted. His wife knew it, too, and that’s why she didn’t go with him.

For growers like Jack, cannabis was a new Gold Rush, an opportunity to light out for the territory and live their boyhood Huckleberry Finn fantasies. For Jack, it was also about telling someone to go fuck themselves. He retreated from a $160,000-a-year corporate job to the barely settled portions of Oregon to start growing the same way his own dealers had: through seeds they got out of shitty, seedy weed that was salvaged from ruined crops. Growing wasn’t the scientific process of the modern age, so most of these hippies didn’t know anything about pre-sexing a crop, or dioecious interactions. Leave even a single male plant among a crop of female plants and your buds are bottom-shelf, wispy and full of holes where seeds reside, that pop and cause a coughing fit if not plucked out before smoking. Jack wasn’t satisfied with having low-quality bud, if for no other reason than knowing that he wasn’t going to make as much money growing the park weed that every faux-Rasta was selling to tourists and undercovers on Haight Street. He made his business partner a proposition: The latter could run the business end from San Francisco while Jack headed north for better growing conditions and supposedly less rigorous drug enforcement. Within a few grow cycles, with the help of some shared wisdom from the growers who had already begun to fill out the clearings within a few miles of him, he was pre-sexing and growing the two most sought-after strains of the 1970s.

A couple of Ph.D. students convinced Jack’s business partner to buy seeds from one of the first-ever hybridized plant, the Four Way, created by blending genetics from Afghan, Indian, and Pakistani kush plants with the first-ever documented hybrid, Skunk #1, itself a blend of Acapulco Gold, Colombian Gold, and Afghan kush. It was a total bust. The plants grew to be 8 feet tall with the small, compact buds Jack expected from kush plants, but with the lighter, fluffier texture of the Skunk #1: the worst of both worlds, as it took up too much space and yielded less weight. From then on, he stuck to the landraces, perhaps especially biased against the hybrid breeders because they reminded him of the pricks from MIT he had known in his past life.

It was almost the end of his third year when his crop and his life were destroyed within a matter of hours. He fled to Vegas, a comfortable place for a lifelong sports bettor who would pick up odd jobs at casinos helping bookies set odds on NFL games. He still had friends back home in Western Pennsylvania who knew a few guys who could lend a hand with tips, and the dice shooting back in the South Side of Pittsburgh had been no accidental hobby. A lawyer told him he had nothing to worry about, that the feds couldn’t place him at the scene of the grow, but how the hell are you supposed to believe that? It wasn’t just the weed, it was the guns. Jack luckily never had much reason to use them; his fields existed shortly before the days when drug-related violence powered by cartels and smugglers began to explode. But his livelihood was in those fields, and people loved Colombian Gold. He had to be prepared for somebody to rip him off, and it happened often enough that growers stayed alert.

Jack spent three years convinced the agents were moments from kicking his door in before he finally got tired of waiting around and went back up to Oregon. His truck was in the same parking spot it’d been in when he ran, but the guns and plants were gone. He got some gas and drove back to Vegas, re-registered it before spending another few months once again waiting for the police to kick his door in. Eventually he either realized it wasn’t going to happen, or did enough cocaine and alcohol that he stopped worrying about it.

They didn’t want to get him. The destruction was the point. Operation Condor, which encouraged and assisted a series of right-wing military coups throughout South America, was many things, but on the ganja-enforcement end it was purely about destruction. Charges and busts at the state and federal level were icing on the cake, but the primary directive at the time from the intelligence community in the United States was to cut off the cash-starved socialist movements from the lucrative drug trade: Kill the buds, and the commies will die.

They got themselves rich off it for 30 damn years on the other end of it, Jack remembers, blowing everything up and throwing people in jail. I mean I know guys, myself, whole lives just wiped off the map. Jack’s in his 80s now and living a quiet life somewhere in California. He got sober in 1988 with the help of a patient woman who stuck around long enough for him to fall in love, but who refused to marry him until he cleaned up. He has misgivings about the modern status of legalization in America, the type of hesitation and loathing for the substance that most addicts have for what poisoned their life. But, aside from his own feelings on cannabis, there’s another angle that angers him about it. So, what, they saw the light just in time to get rich all over again?

After marijuana’s quasi-legalization in California after 1996, Jack’s prediction came true: The academics, whether they were trained botanists or mad-scientist sovereign-citizen types, indeed took over the cannabis growing scene. Despite that, there’s still relatively little that the scientific community knows about the plant itself, primarily because of decades of destructive enforcement by the federal government and its overzealous agencies. Specifically, the growers and cannabis enthusiasts of today are still trying to piece together genetic histories that have been corrupted or otherwise destroyed by agents of the state. Jack’s Colombian Gold and Hindu Kush—ancient landraces that survived on their own for centuries—are now thought to be functionally extinct in the wild in the Western Hemisphere, or at least endangered enough that finding them requires time, resources, and connections that very few people have. Landrace stock that had been utilized for hybridization was getting destroyed faster than it could be stabilized, either intentionally by the process itself or unexpectedly by the authorities with chainsaws and controlled burns. When people say that “weed has gotten stronger” over the years, it’s only telling part of the story.

They’re never coming back, either. Not in this hemisphere. The beauty of cannabis that botanists are learning is that it adapts not only to its environment, but to its position on the planet. Strains that are commonly known in the marketing world of legal cannabis as “sativa” are more simply just equatorial plants. They have tropical qualities and growing patterns, scents and flavor profiles meant to repel equatorial predators, all of which provide varying effects for medical patients. All cannabis is sativa, but the plant presents itself differently depending on its surroundings, sometimes even taking on its physical characteristics. When put through a flower grinder, a bud of Afghan kush—about as close as you can get to the actual Hindu Kush of the '70s—looks much like the arid orange and pale green countryside of the areas where it grows. A bud of Durban Poison has the deep, lush green of the forests of KwaZulu-Natal. If the genetics aren’t preserved, then when those surroundings are lost, the ability to recreate the plant is also lost forever.

The outdoor climate of Southern Oregon is as extinct as Jack’s plants. Wildfire season lasts a full month longer than it did a few decades ago, and snowpack has reduced by nearly 20 percent. The soil gets less precipitation, things don’t grow as nicely as they used to—or they grow differently, at the very least. There are indoor methodologies for simulating something similar, but ask any cultivator about the differences in outdoor grows versus indoor. Yields can vary, mutations happen more readily, shockingly high-performance plants spring up out of nowhere. In the fields where Jack made his living, there were mutations and phenotypes that even he wasn’t aware of, and now no one will ever be. A skin cancer treatment in the back row, maybe. Or an anticonvulsant in the spring of ‘78. Gone forever.

5. Bio-terrorism in paradise

Jamaican farmers retreated to the seclusion of the mountains to grow ganja in the 1990s. They were too afraid to grow in the open after what had been done to the Rastafari in the ‘80s. The helicopters started in 1984, but these were not Jamaica Labour Party goons jumping out, not always. Sometimes it was a couple of bad-looking dudes, sometimes seemingly a whole army. And sometimes nobody jumped out at all. Sometimes the choppers just sprayed the same poison that had stripped the forests of Vietnam. Agent Orange and herbicidal warfare were officially banned in 1978, but when you’re fighting a secret war, there’s nobody to tell you to stop. In the Caribbean today, birth defects still account for 21 percent of mortality among children under 5, more than twice the rate of the rest of the world. 

America’s destructive relationship with ganja in Jamaica started during the 1970s and was one of the only things you could find any coverage of in The New York Times. Very little was known about the drug at the time, or any drug for the most part. But ganja is rooted in Jamaican culture. It likely has been in Jamaica since the time before a single white person arrived. Rastafari is newer, an apolitical religious and social movement among men and women of predominantly African ancestry that started in Jamaica in the 1930s but didn’t really flourish into the rebellious, revolutionary movement associated with Bob Marley until the ‘70s. That’s when Americans heard of it, at least, mostly through the music and the new pot that was making its way up the east coast by way of Miami’s ports. But that wasn’t all Americans knew. They also knew what they read in the papers.  

In the pages of the Times the Rastafari were power-hungry and sneaky, always whispering in Manley’s ear and taking over the streets. The American press portrayed Manley’s relationship with the Rastafari as a desperate move, latching onto a violent leftist movement to seize his bankrupted and broken government from the rising tide of the pro-capitalist, open-market Jamaica Labour Party. There’s little to no mention of bauxite and certainly no reference to foreign aid, and obviously not a lot of follow-up reporting by anyone with any real interest in Jamaican culture. 

The American government knew the inaccuracy of what was being printed. From a memo dated Oct. 3, 1979 from Kingston, Jamaica to then–Secretary of State Cyrus Vance:



Americans consumed media the way we consumed the drugs, with very little question as to what we were putting into our bodies or where it came from. We heard what was happening, we saw the guns, the violence—that was all real. The propagandists that created the anti-drug campaigns just forgot to mention that it was us that was doing the killing, either directly or via state-sponsored laws that targeted and authorized the murder of Rastas in the name of the War on Drugs.

For example, there’s not one single mention in major American newspapers of the “Dread Law,” passed in 1974 in the island of Dominica, which was under British rule at the time. The law made it illegal to wear your hair in dreadlocks to show you were Rastafari, with a penalty of at least two days' jail time without needing to bring charges. Also under the law, officially called The Prohibited and Unlawful Societies and Associations Act so as not to give away the game, authorities could not prosecute someone who had killed a “Dread” inside a place of residence. Not even specifically their place of residence, mind you. Just a place of residence.

Only in the past few years has there been any real reckoning for the original slaughter of the Rastafari community in Jamaica that started with the so-called Coral Gardens Incident. In 1963 there was a highly disputed skirmish between a small group of Rastafari and a man named Franklyn Rudolph at a gas station. The Daily Gleaner, the newspaper that was run by the ambassador to the U.S., ran article after article demonizing the Rastafari as savages, unready for civil society, looking to overthrow the government. From Jamaica Observer in 2015:

“The first media reports out of the incident called it an 'uprising.' That was the term used by both JBC and RJR. The then Jamaica Labour Party-led Government took great offence at the description of the incident as an 'uprising,' as it saw the use of that word as anti-Government.”

The Gleaner was acting as a mouthpiece for the American government while inciting violence against the Rastafari. The Rastafari’s version of Christian socialism was close enough to communism for Washington to decide it needed to put the movement down, and one way to do that was to cut the Rasta off from one of their main sources of funding: the growing and selling of ganja. This didn’t stop when the pro-American JLP took control of the Jamaican government in 1980. It got worse. Between 1984 and 1986, an estimated 60 percent or more of the cannabis crop in Jamaica was destroyed by the Americans and their pals, all in exchange for a sweet line of credit from the Reagan administration. Jamaican officials commented at the time that it was well-understood that the federal aid was a ransom.

The campaign of destruction against cannabis stands in stark contrast to the approach to other Intelligence-linked drug operations (both alleged and confirmed). The Intelligence Community used narcotics like opium/heroin in Afghanistan as recently as the 2000s to help arm anti-Taliban militias. The American government may be anti-drug in its policy and approach, but it is not anti-money, and understands how to leverage an asset.

So why kill the biggest cash crop of the time, instead of just taking the fields and trafficking out of them to help fund Cold War operations? Ganja was a resource. But since it’s also a weed, it’s a resource that is extremely difficult to monitor and control. America couldn’t monopolize the grow. One of the only accurate state department talking points from the time that appeared in American papers was that ganja farmers were using the drug to trade with American customers for guns to help arm supporters of Manley and the People’s National Party. That’s about half true: The Rasta did not get involved with the violence, but often they were the ones growing ganja and therefore unintentionally fueling the trade.

The ganja farmers were allegedly trading their wares for money, which was traded for guns. They created a microeconomy, the same kind of resource-based socialism that has always been present in the teachings of Caribbean leftists. That’s how they almost won the war that nobody in America knew was going on, save for a handful of people who weren’t lying when they said they bought Penthouse for the articles. The Americans were almost toppled by ganja, almost denied exclusive access to a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Almost.

This was when the ganja strains went extinct, a hyper-violent version of what they did to guys like Jack up in the Pacific Northwest, guys who had also formed their own microeconomy that allowed them to walk away from the machine. Rastas were killed by Western forces across the Caribbean, in Africa, in South America, all in the open but with no media to report on it reliably to the United States.

This was also bio-terrorism. Aside from the pesticides that ganja farmers saw with their own eyes, this was the destruction of medicine. Even modern western science agrees, now. Ganja is not some slumpy, addictive poison. It can help cure epilepsy, alleviate pain, assist with gastrointestinal disorders, actively fight against skin-cancer agents—these aren’t just anecdotes. These are lab-proven applications. Our government went to this country, where they’d been using this medicine for hundreds of years, and burned it all up in the name of fighting the Soviets.

Speaking to modern Rastafari in the Caribbean who are trying to pick up the pieces, it becomes intuitively obvious why the propaganda effort was so crucial. You hear the pain and the hurt, but even worse is the confusion. The confusion at this white person asking why Rasta populations stopped growing after the 1980s. The white person who asks why there weren’t any news reports of this stuff in America. How the fuck do you Americans not even know what you’ve done?

It’s then that it hits you. You’re reacting and you are crying not because you don’t understand, but because you do. You aren’t using a translator. This person is speaking English. They were able to tell us, in our shared language, that they weren’t communists, that we didn’t need to kill them or incinerate their fields. They were telling us.

6. A resurrection

Dr. Emanuel taught me something that might explain why everyone’s favorite weed is usually something they remember from their youth; not a specific cultivar, but something even simpler. Homegrown.

Genetics are a large part of the equation, but not the final or definitive attribute that determines your flower. The environment is so much more important. You can take Colombian cannabis seeds and grow them in Pennsylvania, and a plant with completely different characteristics can grow out of the ground. These are called “phenotypes,” the physical and observable characteristics that happen when a genotype (the genetics, or seed) interact with its environment. The plant changes based on external factors, like we do. Every area of the country has a different outdoor growing environment, even the ones with similar temperatures, because growing cannabis can depend on so much. Light, shade, humidity, elevation, how much sunlight per day on average … nobody grows the same plant. If all of my neighbors were growing cannabis, we would probably each have a different garden.

What this also means, though, is that you cannot smoke Jamaican cannabis that is grown in America. You can simulate the climate and the growing conditions in an aluminum tent, or use some other pile-of-shit $1,000 light developed by a dork with a surplus of microchips to sell and no product to stick them in. But it’s still not Jamaican. You can’t smoke Jamaican cannabis unless you get it from Jamaican soil, grown in tropical sunlight, and harvested using Jamaican farming methods.

Dr. Emanuel is a Rastafari and has traveled throughout the West Indies since he was a boy raised in an agricultural family, growing many crops (including the god flower) on the island of Dominica. He’s an avid collector of cannabis genetics, in hope that he can find some surviving indigenous, native cultivars to stabilize for commercial production in the tropics. The plants he is trying to save aren’t the hybridized European plants that have come to grow in Jamaica’s soil, the majority of survivors after three decades of destruction. The farmers kept growing, but they grew the Kush plants, or the other Afghanica plants that hippies brought with them that were about 30 percent the height of the easier-to-spot equatorial plants of Jamaica. The cat-and-mouse game continued until the choppers finally stopped circling in the ‘90s (in Jamaica, anyway; the rest of the Caribbean wasn’t so lucky), when the JLP-protected cocaine traffickers that used to help enforce the cannabis prohibition fell out of power. Cannabis survived, but it wasn’t native Jamaican cannabis. Not really.

Despite that, given that it was at least grown in Jamaican soil with Jamaican sunlight, it was significantly more authentic than much of what is sold in dispensaries today. Dr. Emanuel describes a rather disheartening scenario where massive cannabis companies from the countries that have legalized are mostly using Jamaica as a marketing tool. Western businesses arrive, set up a greenhouse on land that they buy or license, and grow their own plants indoors so they can slap a Jamaican flag on the box and sell more of it. 

Dr. Emanuel has already stabilized multiple landrace cultivars from Latin America, the Caribbean, and South America. He and his partners want to do more work in equatorial climates in Asia and Africa, where legendarily unattainable cuts like Congolese Red are farmed.

He has a vision for a cannabis-centered economy in the Caribbean that puts its own people first, utilizing the leftover manufacturing tools that the colonizers left in their wake. Jamaica and Saint Vincent are known to be countries with bountiful production, with the soil, sun, and lush landscapes where plants differ by region and give different properties to its consumers. Trinidad and Tobago is a manufacturing hub, with oil and processing facilities that can help with producing and powering the types of lab-based cannabis extraction methods that produce concentrates. Guyana and Belize are mainland territories with a long history of large agricultural enterprise, including sugar cane and rice, and are more suited for exploiting hemp production for nutrition and fiber or textiles. Antigua and Barbados are smaller countries with water deficits that are primarily dependent on tourism, and health and wellness tourism via equatorial cannabis is a promising industry. There’s a natural need that arises to trade: Unique ownership of a given local asset is the real catalyst for a global economy, rather than one ruled by capital exchange. The Caribbean cannabis economy as a regional trading block could create solidarity and generate intraregional wealth among the people that we seized it from 50 years ago. It also creates a stronger negotiating position in global trade discussions as cannabis prohibition finally, mercifully starts to fall.

In that region of the world, the beautiful local cuts of cannabis like Lambsbread, Durban Poison, Panama Red, and Colombian Gold can grow freely and sustainably with minimal inputs while outperforming their counterparts in the temperate climates, even on indoor grows. The equatorial sun awakens something in these plants. Research conducted on USDA-approved hemp cultivars (i.e. a cannabis plant with less than 0.3 percent THC) from the U.S. showed that the plants yielded buds between 6-8 percent THC consistently. When equatorial plants are grown outdoors in an equatorial climate, the yield can be significantly higher within a shorter flowering cycle.

Cannabis presents itself uniquely everywhere, not just in equatorial climates. Jamaican cannabis genetics are grown in Pennsylvania and have wonderful psychoactive effects and medicinal qualities—it’s just not the same as it is when cultivated outdoors in its natural, native Jamaican habitat. But that’s OK. Like the plants in Dr. Emanuel’s garden, they are changing based on the environment they’re in. Cannabis is not one thing, and each grower has their own cultivation methods that alter the plant and its effects. Each region, even sub-regions within cities based on elevation and water types and temperature and rainfall, can have its own unique crop. We could own it: a new agrarianism.

That’s an economy, and with soil and seeds, every community has the power to grow its own economy. The Rastafari have always understood that, except they’ve understood it holistically. Ganja is medicine but in the West African tradition, where healing of the mind and the body are not so strictly distinguished between. This, more than anything else, may explain why the American government fought so hard and spent so much to burn these fields to the ground. The old cliché that you "can’t kill an idea" has never stopped Americans from trying. But even ideas are weak compared to instinct. The Rastafari survive, they’ll tell you, because they are of the Earth, and the Earth refuses to die. The Earth will live through our own annihilation—perhaps helped along by some bauxite mined on this little island—and, after centuries of ecological healing, greet whatever is next with open arms. Perhaps there will be something left of us in the soil that survives; something left of us in what grows.

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