MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica — Jamaica has long bemoaned its reputation as the land of ganja.
It has enforced draconian drug laws and spent millions on public education to stem its distinction as a pot mecca. But its role as a major supplier of illicit marijuana to the United States and its international image — led by the likes of Bob Marley, whose Rastafarian faith considers smoking up a religious act — have been too strong to overcome.
Now, its leaders smell something else: opportunity.
Having watched states like Colorado and California generate billions of dollars from marijuana, Jamaica has decided to embrace its herbaceous brand.
Rather than arresting and shunning the country’s Rasta population, the Jamaican authorities will leverage it. Beyond decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana last year, Jamaica has legalized the use of medical marijuana, with its ultimate sights set on “wellness tourism” and the font of money it could bring.
And for good reason: Jamaica has one of the lowest economic growth ratesin the developing world, a striking contrast to the global success its citizens have enjoyed in the worlds of sports and music.
So, having done just about everything experts say a stupendously indebted nation should do — sticking to austere fiscal plans, adopting prudent macroeconomic policies and creating a friendly climate for outside investors — Jamaica is adding marijuana to its arsenal.
The new world order has brought together an odd assortment of characters. At a recent conference at a luxury hotel in Montego Bay, besuited government officials and business leaders mingled with pot farmers and Rastafarian leaders like First Man, who kicked off the conference with a speech on the global benefits of ganja.
“We are talking about a plant that bridges the gap between all of our relationships,” First Man, barefoot with a Rasta scarf around his neck, said to a packed room. “Our planet needs this relationship to happen.
As the head of a Rastafarian village in Jamaica, First Man was speaking at the first CanEx conference, a gathering of government and local leaders trying to figure out just how the country can most effectively make this about-face, without neglecting international law.
No one is really clear how the industry will evolve. Technically, the United Nations convention on drugs — which requires nations to limit the production, trade, use and possession of drugs — still prevails, meaning that outright federal legalization is, well, illegal.
“In the past, the United States really left no room for maneuver,” said Mark Golding, the former minister of justice who developed the legislation to permit medical marijuana production in Jamaica. “But with the Obama administration creating an opportunity for states to do what they wanted to, it created a window for all of us.”
“Where the real market is, and where the real money is, remains to be seen,” he added. “We are all just preparing for it.”
For some, society is at the beginning of a post-Prohibition era, much as it was with alcohol decades ago, when global brands and untold billions were still to be made.
That’s still a long way off. Jamaica began legalizing the use of medical marijuana last year, but has so far granted only a few licenses to cultivate marijuana for research purposes. No one, as yet, has sold any product legally, but the government is gearing up to meet whatever market presents itself.
“Jamaica for so long has been associated with this plant,” said the conference organizer, Doug Gordon. “Now, it’s a business, an opportunity, one that can change the future of this country through jobs and income, one that can change our G.D.P.”
Of course, all of this has stoked fears of inequality for poor rural farmers, who have long been targeted for doing exactly what the country is now trying to take advantage of. Many fear that big money will come in, monopolize the industry and leave those on the margins exactly where it found them.
Iyah V, a Rastafarian leader who sits on the nation’s nascent licensing authority, summed up concerns by pointing to the many suits and relatively few Rastas at the conference.
“If we are not organized, and are not helped, the possibility exists for the ganja industry to become the next tourism, coffee or sugar industry, where our people are used as common laborers and the wealth is confined to a few,” he said.
Jamaican leaders say they are trying to heed the warning. Most agree there should be access to capital for small farmers, as well as breaks on expensive licensing fees and other upfront costs. But those, too, are yet to be determined. Even entrepreneurs agree that the playing field is not a level one.
Varun Baker, a well-traveled and educated entrepreneur, has started Ganjagram, an application where users can read up on the laws regarding marijuana in Jamaica. Ultimately, he hopes to make it something of an Uber for marijuana smokers, allowing clients to order and select products for delivery through their phones.
He is searching for partners and investors to help fund his ambitions, but the pitch remains difficult.
“There is lots of gray area,” Mr. Baker said. “People don’t really understand what the government is doing.”
Bali Vaswani, by contrast, is a prominent businessman in Jamaica who has created several brands, including Marley Brand Coffee on behalf of Marley’s family. He is already working with a research license and last month harvested the first crop of legal marijuana in Jamaica.
He is not only clear on the rules in place now, but is in a position to help shape those to come. He has ample capital to invest and business know-how, specifically in the marijuana industry in Colorado, so it is hard to imagine how he will not dominate the market here when it finally does open up.
“I’m trying to bring a corporate structure to this, and do my part to build Brand Jamaica,” he said. “I’ve been given a set of rules, and all I do is follow it. It’s not beneficial to knock the rules.”
To date, there has been a lot of knocking of the rules. In fact, farmers, Rastafarians and academics have joined forces to slow the transformation underway, fearing small farmers will be railroaded.
Kadamawe Knife, a Rastafarian academic, spent a significant portion of his presentation at the conference bashing the Cannabis Licensing Authority, the government’s regulatory apparatus for ganja.
“How do we make money on this? What is the growth strategy?” he asked, directing his questions to a member of the licensing authority who was awkwardly sharing the stage with him. “I have asked, and I haven’t seen anything.”
The licensing authority member, Delano Seiveright, took the accusations and jabs onstage with aplomb. Afterward, he said Dr. Knife had made some good points. But it did not change the fact that Jamaica was desperate for the funds that cannabis could provide.
To claw its way back to prosperity and pay back one of the worst ratios of debt to gross domestic product in the world, the country is adhering to a strict austerity regime set out by the International Monetary Fund, which has meant little public spending in the last few decades.
Now, leaders are desperate to find any means to expand the economy. And for some officials, earning the money quickly and efficiently means allowing the market to determine the winners, a strategy that favors those with resources.
“Ultimately it’s going to be hard to stop it,” Mr. Seiveright said. “And we don’t necessarily want to stop it. We have adopted the principles of capitalism, but we also believe that small farmers should have a leg up for a certain amount of time.”
Orville Silvera, the head of an association that represents about 2,000 marijuana growers and was formed with the government’s blessing, worries that big money will get concessions for huge amounts of acreage, boxing out the smaller farmers toiling away on a few acres.
But he is not opposed to survival of the fittest — so long as the farmers who have been growing their ganja in the shadows for decades get a fair shot.
“We want to build this from the ground up,” he said. “Let those among us who can do it expand.”
“The others,” he said, “can fail.”