Meet the Rastafari movement whose cannabis demand sustained Jamaica’s economy

Nii Ntreh Sep 11, 2020 at 10:30am

September 11, 2020 at 10:30 am | History

Nii Ntreh

Nii Ntreh | Associate Editor

September 11, 2020 at 10:30 am | History

The Ethiopia Zion Coptic Church was famously credited with boosting the Jamaican economy in the 1980s with their demand of marijuana. Photo Credit: Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church

Questions bothering on morality and health were relegated to the backbench when Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga sat down to talk about the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church (EZCC) in an interview in 1980.

Seaga was quoted saying the “little sinsemilla” purchased and produced by Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church “keeps the country going right now”. Sinsemilla is a kind of cannabis and the (EZCC) were reportedly doing more than their fair share of boosting Jamaica’s economy by getting high.

Arguments that have sought to tear down cannabis legalization were seemingly ineffective when the EZCC entered the conversation in Jamaica and Florida in the 1970s and 1980s. The Supreme Court of Florida recognized in 1979 the right of EZCC members to treat “cannabis [as] an essential portion of the religious practice”.

The EZCC, markedly different from the Egyptian Coptic Church, is a Rastafari movement based on the teachings of legendary Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey and whose sacrament is cannabis. In spite of the hallowed place occupied by Garvey in the tradition of the church, many EZCC members are white people.

How did white people comfortably embrace Garveyism? One of the white church adherents once said the vision of the EZCC was to give back to Black people, “what our fathers stole”.

Having grown out of Jamaica in the 1970s, the EZCC was incorporated in Florida in 1975. But religiously conservative Miami did not take too kindly to this development, so much so that a leader of the EZCC in 1979 had to hire a cameraman to document the piety of the church’s congregations.

Documentary filmmaker Bill Corben whose film Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja touched base with the EZCC, said the church faithful hold beliefs not dissimilar to fundamentalist Christians. Indeed, Brother Louv, the leader of the EZCC branch in Miami who went to that great length to put out a good image of the church, said in Corben’s film that the “basic message [of our religion] is, you should stop your sin”.

These sins include homosexuality, abortion, birth control, oral sex, and masturbation. Members are also encouraged to smoke marijuana, not as a recreational drug, but rather a sacrament – in the same way Christians are advised to take the communion at church.

Marijuana was described as a herb of “pure spiritual love” and is said to bring clarity to one’s mind.

Corben believes the American founders of the EZCC were “former hippies, we’ll call them, these young American kids who were kind of lost post the peace love movement”. How then did a few culture-countering Americans help sustain the Jamaican economy?

In November of 1980, the Washington Post published a piece on the EZCC and it included this paragraph:

“In fact, according to several well-traveled citizens of this troubled nation [Jamaica], the Coptics have gained considerable popularity among the rural poor by taking over fallow land, building high-quality paved roads — which can easily double as landing strips — and importing fertilizer and sophisticated farming techniques to improve it, considerably increasing the accessibility and productivity of entire regions of the country.”

The piece also said Jamaican and US officials believed the EZCC was responsible for 50% of the marijuana between the two countries. EZCC was said to have shipped 100 tons of marijuana from Jamaica to the United States between 1970 and 1980.

The Washington Post piece also said Brother Louv, real name Thomas Reilly Jr., boasted that the EZCC owned about 10,000 acres of land in Jamaica where they provided employment to locals.

“Ganja saved Jamaica from communism. Who’s going to save it tomorrow? The Drug Enforcement Administration? I doubt it,” Louv reportedly said.

The church did invest in other businesses “including the magazine Coptic Times (which claims a circulation of 25,000) and in Jamaica the Coptic Container company, which owns several trucks and does contract hauling on a large scale. The church also reportedly owns one of Kingston’s major supermarkets.”

The report continued: “Few Jamaicans failed to note that at a time when most businesses were desperately short of inventory and capital goods, the Coptics were able to import heavy road-grading and farming machinery, and the shelves of their supermarket were the best stocked in town.”

The Washington Post report is corroborated in part by the fact that the EZCC became extremely wealthy for a small sect. Members of the church bought a massive property on the famed Star Island in Florida that they’d eventually had to let go when the community felt it had enough of the smoking and chanting.

Although we may not be able to put a figure on how much the EZCC voted into the Jamaican economy at the height of the movement (since a bulk of their operations were clandestine), Jamaica’s 2-million-strong population in the 80s would imaginably be impacted by 100 tons of marijuana going to the US.

Today, the EZCC is fragmented and no one knows how many adherents there are now. There is however an offshoot in Brazil called the First Niubingui Church Etiope Coptic of Zion of Brasil.

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