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Bobo Shanti Priest Solomon

From his home atop the lush hills overlooking Maracas Valley, in this country’s first capital, St Joseph, Honourable Priest Solomon of the Ethiopia African Black International Congress or Bobo Shanti passionately revisited the escapes of his ancestors, the Maroons and the Merikins.

Relentless in their quest for freedom, he praised the Maroons, escaped slaves in mainly Jamaica, but also in Trinidad, and the Merikins, soldiers who were a mixture of runaway slaves and free black men who fought for the British against the United States from 1812, and who settled on lands in Moruga and environs given to them for their service.

Farming was the Merikins’ lifeblood. Planting more than just rice became the custom of these fearless and resilient men who resisted colonial rule, Solomon said.

The Bobo Shanti is a Mansion, order or branch of Rastafari. And Rastafari is said to have had been influenced by Maroons in Jamaica. A priest for the past 20 years at the official headquarters and church of the Bobo Shanti also housed at Maracas Valley, Solomon said his people were still fighting for their freedom and redemption hundreds of years later.

Responding in an interview with Sunday Guardian as to how the decriminalisation of growing and possessing small quantities of marijuana has affected his group, he said it has not changed much for them.

“Marijuana use is traditional. It is not religious. We don’t use marijuana in any ceremony that we have. We don’t use marijuana in the church. We don’t see that the (partial) decriminalisation of marijuana would affect us much.

“The majority of us use marijuana in our daily lives…An industry would fuel our development because it would help us to buy materials to build, to pay bills.” Farmed and sold to make a living.

“It would affect the general population greatly in that some people who were afraid, would come out now and use marijuana. A lot of people used marijuana before they ‘decriminalised’ it, just in the closet,” he said.

He said a cannabis industry where marijuana could be used to produce medicine, fuel, cloth and pesticides, among other products, should not be exclusive to big conglomerates who could afford licences and other resources for production. Rather, it should be open to the ordinary man.

He said in light of the number of Rastafarians that were imprisoned for marijuana offences over the years, it would only be fair that the authorities give Rastas first preference to produce for a local marijuana industry. It could be a form of reparation, he felt.

In December 2019, the Government passed a bill to make the cultivation and possession of small quantities of cannabis legal. Each person is allowed up to four cannabis plants or under 30 grams of cannabis, for personal use only.

Since then, the Government has laid the Cannabis Control Bill, 2020 in Parliament and is expected to start debate on the bill soon. The bill seeks to regulate the handling of cannabis, establish the Trinidad and Tobago Cannabis Licensing Authority and provide for other cannabis-related issues. A licensing authority could allow for the commercialisation of marijuana. However, at present, the sale of home-grown marijuana is prohibited.

Tracing the historical use of marijuana, Solomon said marijuana was used in pharmaceutical drugs, as car fuel and materials for building homes. Describing it as the “fuel for the economy during slavery,” Solomon said it was used widely for cloth and ropes.

“Even in the Vietnam war in America, they encouraged the population to farm to fuel the war. Now, they just allowing people to only benefit from the use of marijuana, but not the industry which is unfortunate. I want to see that they allow us to farm it in bulk and sell it free (ly) like pimento. That will bring change.”

According to Solomon, what has changed generally in society with the decriminalisation of small quantities is that people got wiser about the advantages of using marijuana.

He said he knows of many people who have had improvements with lifestyle diseases and the immune system, after using the various parts of the Sativa plant. Some also use it for autism and to bring pain relief to their pets, he said. He said apart from medicinal properties, marijuana could have benefits like increasing appetite and improving introspection and meditation.

More people are seeking to grow and consume marijuana to cope with stress due to COVID and its issues, he added.

“People more stressed, people more confined and in these situations, you would find mental illness coming on. Marijuana is something that would calm your nerves. It allows the hypothalamus in your head, a gland in your brain to secrete the hormone that relaxes your body. Once people start using that herb and feel relaxed they would use it more and more,” he said.

As to what he thought about Agriculture Minister Terrence Rambharat’s comment that people cared more about alcohol and weed than taking the vaccine, after the Minister had passed through Moruga on September 25 to promote a vaccine drive, Solomon laughed: “With marijuana people feel good, pains go away compared to alcohol. People like to feel strong in a time where you might feel afraid; you can’t even breathe the air, touch your friends, family. So people will gravitate to things that make them feel good.”

He said Moruga was historically a place of autonomy where descendants of the Merikins built their own churches, schools and developed their own medicine.

Questioning the definition of a drug, he said marijuana was not a drug, but a natural alternative to pharmaceuticals.

Simply put, a drug can be described as a chemical that changes the way a person’s body and mind work. Call it “cannabis”, “marijuana”, “weed” or “ganja”, the topic of legalising marijuana–a mixture of dried-out leaves, stems, flowers and seeds from the Sativa or Indica plant–has long polarised society.

While some advocate for its use, citing its medicinal benefits and ability to “relax” the mind, others insist that the use of marijuana is morally and ethically wrong as it is a dangerous drug that potentially impacts one’s brain function and behaviour, affecting judgement and motor skills. Opponents of marijuana also say the herb poses the threat of addiction and can be a gateway to harder drugs.

According to the US Centres for Disease Control, cannabis contains compounds including, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is “impairing or mind-altering,” causing a “high”. Another active compound found in cannabis is cannabidiol (CBD), but this does not lead to an altered state of mind.

Internationally, although Amsterdam in the Netherlands has been popular as “the weed capital of Europe,” buying marijuana was allowed only in small quantities and the country is now seeking to restrict its availability to tourists. In the US, as of July 2021, 18 States have legalised marijuana.

Apart from the dried parts of the plant which are usually smoked by users, THC or CBD capsules, cannabis-infused topicals, cannabis-infused hair and beauty products, cannabis-infused beverages and THC or CBD transdermal patches are also marketed abroad.

CEO of Cannabis GrowersTT on Facebook, Dillon Cordner. said a number of people were preparing to get involved in a possible local marijuana industry. Cordner said he was also the founder of other social media pages such as Trini 4 Cannabis Grow CGATT which has over 30,000 members. His farmer groups teach others cultivation methods and medicinal knowledge of marijuana in anticipation of a local marijuana industry, he said.

“A lot of people realise that it (can be) an industry where they can build their standard of living. The way things are hard right now, a lot of people are looking to see how they can play a part in this industry.

“We could find a common ground between the Government, big business and the small man to make this bill accessible to small growers who are willing to plant it. If we try to make it exclusive, the opportunities the Government will have to generate foreign revenue are going to be limited.”

He said people from all walks of life were doing their research and now growing and using at home, with the number of home growers and users having more than doubled since marijuana in small quantities was decriminalised almost two years ago.

Many of these were tapping into marijuana for its medicinal properties to treat issues like epilepsy, lifestyle diseases and cancer, he said.

Pointing out that Colombia was already a marijuana-exporting giant, he said Trinidad could capitalise on cheap energy, sargassum seaweed which washes up on local shores and land to become competitive in such an industry.

Cordner said farming was a part of the fabric of T&T, pointing out that many who farmed, in general, for several generations cultivated cocoa, coffee and sugarcane. Revealing that he grew up planting in Toco on the land of his ancestors who could be traced back centuries as farmers, he said his grandfather grew marijuana for pharmacies in the 1960s before it was banned.

“What I think we need moving forward concerning this bill is more transparency. Give us an ear because we understand more about the industry than the large corporations and politicians. Make room for constant amendments as in the countries that have industrialised the plant, but we cannot follow with their model our country is too small,” he said.