Last weekend, I was invited to speak at the annual Houston International Festival in Texas. This year's Ifest focused on my native country of Jamaica. After a panel that featured my new book, Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley, a teenager in a Johnny Cash t-shirt came up to me and said he very much appreciated my talk. "I didn't realize how deep Bob Marley was," the teen said. "I thought he was just a stoner."
I don't smoke and I don't drink. But I know from research that I did on my book, and from the conduct of the potheads in my high school shop class (they were particularly bad and dangerous when it came to spot-welding), that it's sometimes tough for folks who smoke lots of marijuana to be taken seriously. That's true whether you're Bob Marley or a medical researcher with an Ivy League degree.
In fact, serious pot-smokers got dealt a serious blow by the U.S. government just a few days ago. On April 20, in a move that was sharply criticized by many researchers and physicians, the U.S Food and Drug Administration issued a statement that read, in part, that the agency did "not support the use of smoked marijuana for medical purposes." The statement also claimed that several Department of Health and Human Services agencies had "concluded that no sound scientific studies supported medical use of marijuana for treatment in the United States."
Marley might have wondered what the FDA had been smoking.
The reggae star was the most famous advocate of medical marijuana use. As a believer in Rastafari, a school of religious thought born in Jamaica, Marley saw marijuana as a sacrament. He also saw it as medicine for the body and the body politic. Time and again he called ganja "the healing of the nation." Marley argued that "Herb is not a drug. Herb is a plant that grow. And God made it so that mankind can take it."
Perry Henzell, the director of the classic film "The Harder They Come," once pointed out that the reggae star's decision to embrace a religious faction that featured ganja as a sacrament may have been the canniest move of his career.
Henzell was right. But Rastas don't just smoke ganja just to get high. Well, of course they like getting high, but there's a lot of thought that goes into it, or at least much more thought than the potheads used to show in my shop class.
Rasta teachings hold that the Bible once read that King Solomon's robes were made from hemp and that the original Hebrews used wisdom weed as incense. Rastas cite several biblical passages to back up their position. For example, Exodus 10:12 declares: "Eat every herb of the land."
It says "eat" and not "smoke" but for Rastas, that's close enough.
Rastas have paid dearly for their choice of sacrament.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Rasta musicians were routinely targeted by Jamaican cops. Bob Marley and his bandmates Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer would all spend time in Jamaican prisons for marijuana offenses. Toots Hibberts of the Maytals spent two years in jail for marijuana possession, nearly derailing his career. He later wrote the hit song "54-46 (That's My Number)" about the experience.
The FDA's recent statement asserted that "there is currently sound evidence that smoked marijuana is harmful."
Marley and his Rasta brethren had their own "sound" evidence that it was not.
Marley was arguably the greatest creative force the music world has ever seen. His songs, decades after they were first written, are anthems in Jamaica, South Africa, Japan -- and Houston, Texas. Ganja didn't seem to have a negative impact on his creativity.
Critics, however, have a powerful counterargument. Marley died of cancer at the age of 36. It's impossible to say with certainty whether his near-constant ganja smoking played any role. But it would be tempting for some to argue that it did.
Marley's life, like all lives, may have faded like smoke from a spliff. But his music lingers. The art that he made was more than a temporary buzz. It is serious stuff.
Christopher John Farley is the author of Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley (Amistad/ HarperCollins). He can be reached at myspace.com/cjfarley.