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Q&A: Antigua and Barbuda prime minister on granting Rastafari their sacramental marijuana rights

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By Luis Andres Henao

ST. JOHN’S, Antigua (AP) — The Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda recently granted Rastafari official sacramental authorization to grow and smoke marijuana that their faith deems sacred.

Rastafari across the world have been persecuted and jailed for decades for their ritualistic use of marijuana. As public opinion and policy continues to shift in the United States and across the globe toward legalization of marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes, Rastafari are demanding more protections to curb persecution and ensure freedom of worship.

In an exclusive interview, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told The Associated Press that his government seeks to prevent further discrimination of the Rastafari and bring respect to their culture and faith.

Questions and remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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AP: Can you tell us about the sacramental rights to cannabis in Antigua and why it’s so important?

BROWNE: The initiative started with the legalization of marijuana. And we’re trying at the time to protect … our youth in particular, many of whom were … caught with a “spliff” and were criminalized, and their future prospects would have declined thereafter. So, we recognized that there was a need to intervene and to decriminalize the use of marijuana to protect our youth in particular, and to reduce the the jail population. And then we subsequently moved quickly to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes … and thereafter we went the extra mile, which I believe most countries have not implemented — to legalize the use of marijuana for sacramental purposes.

We pride ourselves as an all inclusive government, and we believe that we have to provide a space for everyone at the table, irrespective of their religion. … We believe that we have to be inclusive, just as we have recognized other faiths, we think that it’s absolutely important for us to also ensure that the Rastafari faith is also acknowledged, and they too should be given the opportunity to worship. … It was important for us to acknowledge their constitutional right to worship and to utilize cannabis as a sacrament.”

AP: Earlier this year, you met with Rastafari groups and granted them legal licenses from your country’s medical cannabis authority to grow the plant for religious purposes.

You told them: “We have adopted many European and non-European religions and we have a Pan-African religion … and instead of embracing it, we have sought to destroy it. I want to encourage you to stand your ground (and) continue to exercise that resilience.”

What can you tell us about that?

BROWNE: Thousands of religions have been developed all around the world, many of which we have actually imported. And why can’t we embrace our own? This is a Caribbean faith, a Caribbean religion. And not only should they stand their ground, but they should seek to export their religion beyond the shores of the Caribbean. The Rastafari movement preaches brotherly love. And I’m talking about the purity of the religion here. We do know that there are some who may claim to be Rastafari, but may not necessarily practice the values of Rastafari. But if we look in them strictly at the values of Rastafari, they’re promoting … brotherly love, good health, even their diet, which is plant-based, is something that can help all of humanity.

AP: What can you tell us about the persecution of the Rastafari for their ritualistic use of marijuana?

BROWNE: When you look at Rastafari within the Caribbean for the last several decades … they were castigated or brutalized or killed, and they stood their ground to the extent that many of their practices are now being embraced globally. Who would expect that there’d be a global movement today to move towards the decriminalization and certainly the legalization of marijuana or cannabis globally? And I think that the Rastafari movement in the Caribbean should take credit for that global development. In the case of Antigua and Barbuda, we have created a space for a form of reparatory justice for Rastafari. So, for example, there’s a cannabis company here by the name of “Grow.” And what we did for them is that … we have waived the licenses because Rastafari has a significant percentage ownership in that company … and by waiving those fees at an annual basis, you’re looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in license fees that we’re waiving as a form of reparatory justice, acknowledging the fact that they’ve been discriminated against, they’ve been marginalized. As I said, several of them would have died at the hands of law enforcement. And I just think that it’s the right thing to do.

AP: What can you tell us about the Rastafari in Antigua and Barbuda?

BROWNE: I’ll give you a personal experience: I grew up in one of the poorest communities on the island. I was one of several children of a single parent who was mentally ill. So at that time, my mother could not work. There was absolutely no income — relatively starving. And I found my way probably about a couple of hundred yards from where we live, (an) “Ital” shack. It was actually operated by two Rastafarians … (they gave me) plant-based foods. I ran errands to them, and that’s part of my survival as a youth. I was about nine years old when my mom became mentally ill, literally on the streets, hungry. But they embraced me. And again, it speaks to that positive value of brotherly love. … I was always socialized to embrace Rastafari.

… So after becoming prime minister, clearly they would have had a very sympathetic leader, someone who would have been sure that all those discriminatory practices would have brought to an end. So, it’s not a coincidence that I’m leading it. I’m sure other leaders would have had the opportunity to do so. In fact, we have had many parliamentarians who have been involved in the uses of marijuana, but for some reason never had the guts to stand up and to defend these atrocities against the Rastafari. Incidentally, I never smoked, but at the same time I recognized what had happened over the decades and that we had to bring it to an end … and was able to influence the Cabinet to champion the legislative changes, which were made in the parliament. … So, we’ve come a long way from discrimination and the castigation, the violence against Rastafari, to one in which they’re fully embraced.

AP: What’s your hope for the Caribbean and the rest of the world when it comes to sacramental rights of the Rastafari?

BROWNE: I think that Antigua is a great example for the others, and I hope that they’ll embrace Rastafari the way in which we have, and not to discriminate against the Rastafari, or any other religion for that matter. We’re all fundamentally one and the same, and we should have the same privileges. We should have the same opportunities. And as governments in particular, we must ensure that the fundamental rights and freedoms of all people, that they’re protected.

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