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The "Ganja Vision" in Jamaica PDF Print E-mail
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Books - Cannabis and Culture
Written by Vera Rubin   

Traditional multipurpose use of ganja, introduced to Jamaica in the mid-nineteenth century by indentured laborers from India, was diffused to the black working class and has become endemic in the past forty to fifty years.

Smoking ganja, although illegal, is prevalent among working-class males and the non-smoker is a deviant who may pose a threat to the peer group. Reactions to the first smoking experience are culturally recognized determinants that validate the status of non-smokers as well as smokers. The ganja vision, a culturally standardized phenomenon occurring generally at the time of the first smoking experience, confirms the role of the smoker. The phenomenon is compared to the institutionalized vision quest among American Indians of the plains. The vision phenomenon, a culturally patterned experience with standardized content, usually in the context of a rite de passage, thus differs from idiosyncratic "hallucinatory" experiences. Hallucinogenic reactions are neither generally sought nor experienced by working-class males in Jamaica.

Cannabis, one of the oldest multipurpose plants known to man, source of hemp as well as hashish, of medications as well as manufactures, has had a divergent ethnohistorical course over the millennia, in differing civilizations and societies. The available evidence on the diffusion of cannabis from its Asiatic origins, reveals marked sociocultural differences in primary uses of the plant — for manufacturing, magico-religious, medicinal and psychoactive purposes and even in the dietary — and in the context of its use.

Public attention has been focused on the psychoactive properties of cannabis, particularly in their manifestations in Western societies, obscuring the extraordinary versatility of the plant. Schultes believes that the earliest use was for fibers, probably followed by magico-religious and medical use. References to cannabis appear in the pharmaceutical and religious works of the early civilizations of China and India,' and kan, the root word, occurs in the Old Testament (Benetowa 1968).

Documentation is becoming available of the early multipurpose use of cannabis in Eastern Europe, diffused through trade routes from Asia (Benetowa 1936; Kabelik et al. 1954). Cultivation of cannabis in southern Russia, which eventually became the leading world manufacturer of hemp rope, goes back to the 7th century B.C. While manufactures were probably the primary commercial consideration, cannabis was also traditionally used in folk medicine for its analgesic and antibiotic effects. Hemp "porridge" was a common food in Eastern Europe, and soups and juices made of hemp seeds are reported to have been served in medieval monasteries. There is also archaeological evidence of their ancient use for ritual purposes. Hemp seeds have been found by the Soviet archaeologist S. I. Rudenko in Scythian funerary remains in the Altai, as had been reported by Herodotus.

The latter provides one of the earliest recorded accounts of apparent psychoactive use of cannabis: the vapor of the hemp seeds in the Scythian funeral rites is alleged to have induced trance (Emboden 1972). It Jas, however, been suggested this was a feature of shamanism and that the ecstatic "howling" reported by Herodotus was the "characteristic shouting by shamans" in trance (223).

Cannabis reached Western Europe, in due course, possibly following the Moorish invasion of Spain in the 8th century A.D. Judging from subsequent history, use of cannabis for manufactures became a significant factor in empire building. It was introduced to the New World by the Spanish in the 16th century and to the British colonies by the early settlers, in both cases intended primarily for textile manufactures.

The earliest introduction to Western Europe of the use of "hashish," i.e., the psychoactive use of cannabis, has been attributed to the soldiers returning from the Napoleonic campaign of 1798, in Egypt.2 Little is known about its psychoactive use, however, until the discovery of the "hallucinogenic" effects of cannabis by the mid-19th century French avant-garde writers who formed the Club des Hachichins.

The search for hallucinogenic experiences via hashish, however, apparently did not spread beyond the circle of literati in Paris, or beyond French borders, with the exception of the American writer, Fitzhugh Ludlow, whose influence on his readers was also minimal.

The major non-textile use of cannabis in the United States during the past century was as a medication, following a report in 1843 by W. B. O'Shaughnessy who had been in the public health service in India. Cannabis was listed in the U.S. pharmacopoeia in 1850 and was used in general practice until the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. That period marks the rise of the campaign against the "evils" of marihuana in the United States stemming from its use by Mexican-American "laborers" in the southwest and by black jazz musicians in New Orleans.

The stigma attached to the use of marihuana by marginal groups in the U. S. is characteristic of other societies as well, reflecting attitudes of the "establishment," generally, to the lower classes. Cannabis provided a convenient rationale for explaining away social problems rooted in poverty and underdevelopment.

The middle-class white American "marihuana habit" is a more recent phenomenon. While the 19th century romantic literature apparently had little impact on hallucinogenic experimentation, outside of literary circles, interest in the U. S. in hallucinogenic experiences was sparked by the work of Aldous Huxley and curiosity about mescaline and nativistic peyote cults. The mid-1960's in the U.S. were also marked by experimentation with LSD, and as McGlothlin notes (this volume), marihuana use by middle-class youth followed rather than preceded such experimentation. The spread of the "marihuana habit" to middle-class groups in other societies probably derives from the United States rather than from indigenous use. The writer would argue, in fact, that the contemporary "marihuana habit" differs sufficiently from traditional cannabis use — in expectations, motivation, patterned responses and life styles of the users — to constitute a distinctive subculture.

Current concerns about the effects of cannabis (both scientific and popular) stress ineluctable mind-altering phenomena and the "amotivational syndrome." These are treated, ethnocentrically, as universal reactions to inherent pharmacological properties of the plant. And cannabis has been classified as a hallucinogen, along with LSD, mescaline and psilocybin (McGlothlin 1966).

For the majority of consumers in non-industrial societies, however, particularly in the laboring classes, cannabis remains a multipurpose plant, used in the dietary, as an herbal in the tradition of folk medicine, and both as energizer and as tranquilizer — as stimulant and sedative — as the situation requires. Cannabis has also been used in ritual, and is still used in India as an offering to the gods. There is considerable subcultural as well as cross-cultural variation in the motivations for use of cannabis, the related expectations and situationally conditioned reactions. Recent multidisciplinary research on the effects of long-term chronic use of cannabis in Jamaica, the West Indies,3 corroborates the hypothesis of cultural conditioning of cannabis use and reactions.

Introduced to Jamaica in the mid-19th centurymid-l9thntured laborers from India, ganja use was diffused to the black working class and has become endemic in the past forty to fifty years.4 Jamaica, consequently, provides an advantageous natural setting for anthropological and clinical studies of the parameters and effects of long-term smoking. Anthropological research was carried out in rural and urban communities to examine patterns of working-class use and to select subjects (chronic smokers and controls) for the clinical studies.5

The anthropological studies, and comparison with the Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission of 1893, led to the premise that a "ganja complex" had been introduced to Jamaica, along with the plant, by the indentured Indian cane cutters. This paper deals with one aspect of the ganja complex, as it was developed in Jamaica — the ganja vision, as a form of initiation rite to becoming a smoker.

Given the endemic nature of ganja use in the Jamaican working class, it was more difficult to locate demographically comparable controls than to find long-term chronic smokers willing to volunteer for the clinical studies.6 Multipurpose ganja use in the working-class milieu, particularly in rural areas, is a cultural regularity, used in the dietary and extensively in folk medicine. Ganja smoking is also a manifest — if somewhat secluded — practice, despite the stringent legislation against possession and use. Young boys are occasionally involved in obtaining small supplies of ganja for older family members or friends and have certainly witnessed their smoking, at home or in "the bush." Socialization to ganja smoking is commonly through a peer group. It is the rare working-class Jamaican male who has never had an initial experience of smoking cannabis as an informal rite de passage to "manship."

Whether or not the initiate becomes a regular smoker, however, is determined — both by himself and his peers — by his reactions to the first experience. Most of the non-smokers in the study reported neutral reactions, i.e., they experienced nothing. There were several cases of negative reactions, similar to the "novice anxiety" reactions reported in the literature — dizziness, auditory sensations, fear of madness. The first smoke was characteristically a few "draws" on a communal spliff or cigarette, pharmacologically insufficient to produce reactions such as those described by one control: "All the whole world of insects and animals I think I hear crying and howling." None of the controls reported a positive reaction, retrospectively phrased by the smokers as "it sweet me."

A positive initial experience validates regular smoking; a negative early experience generally validates non-smoking — that is, sanctioned deviance from peer group norms. This culturally-accepted screening mechanism provides peer recognition of the individual's innate "capacity" to qualify as either smoker or non-smoker, phrased as "he doesn't have the head for it." Ganja smoking is considered undesirable by the middle class and by those members of the working classes who aspire to higher status. Heavy ganja smokers, consequently, are found generally in the lower socioeconomic strata — small farmers and fishermen with limited resources, laborers, and semi-skilled artisans. The screening process which validates non-smoking may thus be an aspect of anticipatory socialization to higher status — a device which secures the individual but does not endanger cohesion and solidarity among working-class people.

Controls as well as smokers were intensively queried about their reactions to the first smoking experience. To underscore the validity of their culturally deviant status, non-smokers frequently commented that they had failed to see the "little old lady" — a vision experience only reported by regular smokers.

Sometimes I hear them say they see a little old lady come before them and dance and laugh and do all sort of things and it makes them feel like doing the same things.

The initial positive smoking experience is an informal rite de passage into the ganja subculture, associated with feelings of sociability, meditation, and relaxation and with the special occurrence of a formalized vision. Experiencing the vision definitively validates smoker status — "You can't tell some man that when you smoke herb you don't see old lady." The occurrence of this vision phenomenon, generally on the first ganja smoking experience, and its content, are culturally standardized. The major features of the vision appear in the following account:

I felt happy, man, I felt happy when I used it that first time. Now the first thing I saw (I was just going into a little doze) is a little woman about this length [three feet tall]. But stouter than a drum and all dressed in pure green. And she wheeled and wheeled and she wheeled, her face was all around, and she wheeled and she wheeled and I was there, admiring, admiring. And how I got to wake up, I saw she had a little rod, just about like this and she wheeled and came toward me and I opened my eyes. And I just woke up and didn't see her again. And the next morning I did my work as nice as ever. I tried it and it did good. So I say this thing must be good. I started to use it regular.

The "little lady" in the vision may be dressed in various colors, red, white, green; the pattern of the vision may vary somewhat, as in that of "little men," dressed in different colors, described in the following:

Gradually as I was growing up and I saw the others smoking and nothing happened to them, I got into it and I smoked it too. The first time I enjoyed myself because I saw some little men in red dancing before me. And I just took it and amused myself. And I considered that must be how everybody feels when they take it the first time. And I just enjoyed myself with the little men I see until I left. Just some short men, they had on red clothes and they danced. About ten of them, it was just a little group of them going on with some dancing before me. [They were] different, different colors some looked white and some looked like black men and some looked like brown men. They were smiling like something 'sweet' them and I just humored the joke with them. They never spoke, they just danced until they disappeared. It didn't make me feel dizzy, for I was conscious. [It never gave you any "visions apart from that?"] No, after I smoked it the first time I smoked it again and I just felt normal as any other man.

The culturally standard vision of the "little dancing" person or creature, which characterizes the first ganja experience for some subjects, may be comparable to the vision quest for guardian spirits of the Plains Indians of North America. The vision, an institutionalized phenomenon among various Plains Indian societies, "designates a culturally prescribed dream, hallucination or any unusual auditory or visual stimulus which is interpreted as a communication from supernatural entities, and results in the recipient's acquisition of power, advice or ritual privileges" (Albers and Parker 1971 :203). Both the quest for the vision and its content conformed to culturally prescribed systems of belief and to structural factors in Plains Indian societies: "The manifest content of the standardized visions was highly stereotyped and stylized with regard to their form, symbolic content and behavioral directives."7

Sociocultural interpretation of the phenomena of Plains Indian collective visions indicates that"... the vision functioned as an anticipatory socialization device, easing problems of role transition" and that".., in some social contexts the vision served to solidify the individual's identification and cohesion with societal organizations" (Albers and Parker 1971:205). It is in the latter context that we may draw some functional analogies between the ganja vision in Jamaica and those of the Plains Indians. The ganja vision confirms the role of the smoker and his transition into the ganja subculture, possibly also his transition to "manship," and solidifies his "identification and cohesion" with the peer group.

Recent research further indicates that there were structural and role limitations on both the Plains vision quest and its outcome. Among the Plains Indians, in cases where the vision served as a validation of status, "unsuccessful individuals" did not dream. This may be compared, structurally, to the absence of the ganja vision among the Jamaican experimenters who did not achieve the status of smokers. On the other hand, there is only limited comparability as to the structural requirement of further validation of status in Plains Indian society. Albers and Parker (1971) note that in cases where the vision was employed as a functional device to achieve new status the individual had to verify the credibility of his vision through socially recognized achievements. Further research would be necessary to determine whether there may be a comparable situation in ganja smoking sets in Jamaica.

Ten smokers in the Jamaican clinical sample reported in standardized form the personal experience of the initial vision, and second person "dem say" accounts were frequently related by other subjects, non-smokers as well as smokers. The phenomenon appears to represent a collective vision, or myth, related to initiation into the ganja subculture and perhaps to origins of ganja use in Jamaica. More intensive research would be required to determine how pervasive the vision experience is, whether it represents a "quest" that validates smoking and perhaps grants special status in the peer group, and whether special psychological traits characterize the individuals who experience the vision.


Cultural variables undoubtedly condition hallucinogenic reactions to cannabis. The vivid accounts of hashish smoking by Baudelaire, Gautier, and their contemporaries, provided a backdrop for Western cultural expectations and social concerns. Gautier's fantastic description of his reactions to "the greenish paste" focused on the bizarre: "Hallucination, that strange guest had set up his dwelling place in me" (Solomon 1966: 168). Even in less baroque Western literature, as previously noted, cannabis has been classified as a hallucinogen, along with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), mescaline and psilocybin.

There is a significant psychological difference, however, between hallucinations and visions; hallucinations are usually idiosyncratic phenomena which may be triggered by personality and/or pharmacological factors; visions are culturally patterned experiences, usually in the context of a rite de passage or of a ritual. The quantity and potency of the initial "smoke" by Jamaican subjects would not warrant a pharmacological explanation of the phenomenon, and certainly not of the patterned cultural content of the vision.

Similar folk uses and reactions to other plants, not generally considered hallucinogens, have been reported. Tobacco, for example, Nicotinana spp. which has been used in folk medicine and magic by American Indians "from Canada to Patagonia," is also "a vehicle for ecstasy." Wilbert (1972:55) reports that among the Warao Indians of Venezuela the use of tobacco in this context is "conceptually and functionally indistinguishable from the 'true' hallucinogen." He observes that there is "an obvious cultural conditioning toward specific ecstatic experiences that have nothing to do with the chemical action of the tobacco plant itself" (80).

The complex of beliefs and behaviors surrounding ganja in Jamaica is structurally linked with use by the lower class, urban and rural. The peasant takes ganja for energy when he works in his fields, the fisherman to ward off fatigue at sea. Ganja makes you "feel to work" and staves off hunger during work, but when taken before the evening meal, it enhances the appetite. If he smokes before an evening dance, the farmer can "win a contest"; if he takes ganja before bedtime, he can sleep restfully and wake refreshed and energized to start his day's work. Taken in congenial group settings, it can evoke religious meditation; taken in solitude, it is said to aid in problem solving. The subjective "mind altering effects" are thus selectively and conditionally experienced. Ganja teas and tonics are also used extensively in the working class — by males and females, adults and children, both as prophylactic and medication for a wide range of ailments. The ganja syndrome is characterized by situational determinants that reinforce working-class use and condition the range of reactions experienced, including the initial vision.

Contrasts in reactions to cannabis are becoming apparent within Jamaica itself, as a subcultural phenomenon. Use has recently spread to the middle class; however, it is not as pervasive as in the working class and carries a different set of psychocultural expectations. These include concepts of enhancement of creativity, pleasure in listening to music, escape from boredom, return to a "child-like" state of absorption in details, search for the "ultimate experience" in sex. Smoking or ingesting small amounts of ganja is reported to induce "tremendous" hunger and to act as an "instant" aphrodisiac. Aphrodisiac qualities, however, are seldom mentioned spontaneously by working-class subjects.8

It is clear from the Jamaican data that "hallucinations are not an invariable consequence of marihuana use" (Fort 1970-l971:519). In the Jamaican working-class setting, hallucinogenic reactions are neither regularly sought nor generally experienced. The one exception to this is the initial vision of the "little lady" who dances and beckons the smoker, usually in a congenial manner. This culturally patterned experience appears to serve the function of "vision quest" (possibly the spirit of the plant) which legitimates smoking for the working-class initiate.

Contrasts in the "marihuana habit" of middle-class Jamaicans, and the ganja complex of working-class Jamaicans, reinforce the thesis that psychoactive reactions to cannabis are conditioned by the cultural formulation of both experience and behavior.


1971 The plains vision experience: a study of power and privilege. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 27 (3)(Autumn): 203-233.

1936 Le chanvre dans les croyances et les coutumes populaires. Warszawa: Nakiaden Towarzystwa Naukowego Warszawskiego.
1968 "Tracing one word through different languages," in The book of grass: an anthology of Indian hemp. Edited by George Andrews and Simon Vinkenoog, 15-17. New York: Grove Press.

1969 Man and marijuana. The International Journal of the Addictions 4 (2) (June): 215-247.

1972 "Ritual use of Cannabis sativa L: a historical-ethnographic survey," in Flesh of the gods; the ritual use of hallucinogens. Edited by Peter T. Furst, 124-236. New York: Praeger.

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1971 Marijuana reconsidered. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

1893-1894 Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, 1893. (Reprinted, 1969; Silver Springs, Maryland: Thomas Jefferson Publishing Company.)

KABELIK, JAN, editor
1954 "Hemp as medicine." Olomouc, Czechoslovakia: Hygienic Institute,
Pharmaceutic Faculty, Palacky University. (Mimeographed.)

1966 "Cannabis: a reference," in The marihuana papers. Edited by David Solomon, 455-472. New York: New American Library.

1843 On the preparations of the Indian hemp, or gunjah (Cannabis indica); their effects on the animal system in health, and their utility in the treatment of tetanus and other convulsive diseases. Provincial Medical Journal Retrospect of the Medical Sciences 5:343-347.

1970 Amazonian cosmos: the sexual and religious symbolism of the Tukano Indians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1966 The marihuana papers. New York: New American Library.

1972 "Tobacco and shamanistic ecstasy among the Warao Indians of Venezuela," in Flesh of the gods: the ritual use of hallucinogens. Edited by Peter T. Furst, 55-83. New York: Praeger.

1 The first recorded use is reported in a Chinese pharmacopoeia about 2737 B.C. (Grinspoon 1971). The earliest reference in sacred writings of India is found in the Atharva Veda (2000-1400 B.C.) where bhanga is mentioned as a "sacred grass" (Chopra 1969 : 216).

2 Hashish may have been introduced by returning Crusaders, between the 11th and 13th centuries. Although the precise source and the various uses of cannabis during this period are matters of historical conjecture, the Crusader route may account for Rabelais' familiarity with the various properties of cannabis, fictionalized as "the plant Pantagruelion." As Grinspoon (1971) points out, Rabelais the physician appears to have recognized in the 16th century the only recently reported analgesic and antibacterial qualities of cannabis.

3 The project was carried out by the Research Institute for the Study of Man, in collaboration with the University of the West Indies, under NIMH Contract No. HSM-42-70-97.

4 Cannabis, for hemp production, was introduced to Jamaica at the end of the 18th century, but did not become a plantation crop, and was apparently not used for dietary, medicinal or psychoactive purposes before the migration of Indian indentured workers, starting in 1845. The first anti-ganja legislation in Jamaica was enacted in 1913, twenty-four years before the Marihuana Tax Act in the United States.

5 Clinical studies were undertaken at the University Hospital by the Faculty of Medicine of the University of the West Indies.

6 The clinical sample consisted of 60 working-class males (30 smokers and 30 nonsmokers) ranging in age from 23 to 53 years, average age 34 years. All but 12 of the 60 had had an initial smoking experience, between the ages of 8 and 36 years. Smokers had their first experience earlier than controls: onset of regular use ranged between the ages of 9 and 25 years (average age 15 years). Duration of smoking ranged from 7 to 37 years, with a mean of 17.5 years.
Frequency ranged from 1 to 24 spliffs (ganja cigarettes) daily, with an average of 7. Chilam pipe smokers took from 1 to 24 pipeloads per week, with an average of 7 weekly. Pipe smoking is less prevalent than spliff smoking as it is more easily detectable. Based on the frequencies of spliff smoking, light use is defined as 1-4 spliffs per day; moderate use as 4-7 per day and heavy use as 8 or more daily.
Ganja samples submitted by the smokers contained Δ9THC ranging from .7% to 10.3% (mean weight) with a mean of 2.96%. The potency of ganja smoked varies according to availability and regular smokers consume various grades as available.

7 Reichel-Dolmatoff, describing a hallucinogenic cult in the Amazon, observes that the visions induced by hallucinogenic drugs are standardized and that younger members of the cult group "still do not have well-defined hallucinations" (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1970:173).

8 Laboratory analysis of samples submitted by several middle-class users reveals only "traces" of THC, supporting the thesis of reactions conditioned by psychocultural expectations.


Our valuable member Vera Rubin has been with us since Tuesday, 21 February 2012.

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