Crack Heads and Roots Daughters

The Therapeutic Use of Cannabis in Jamaica
Melanie Dreher
Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics, 2(3-4), 121-133

publicationAn ethnographic study of women and drug use in inner city neighborhoods in Kingston, Jamaica, revealed that cannabis is commonly used in conjunction with crack cocaine to minimize the undesirable effects of crack pipe smoking, specifically paranoia and weight loss.

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According to 33 current or former crack using women, who were followed for a period of nine months, cannabis cigarettes (“spliffs”) constitute the cheapest, most effective and readily available therapy for discontinuing crack consumption. The findings of this research suggest the need to reframe “multiple drug use” within the cultural meanings that attend cannabis in Jamaica as a medicine and a sacrament.


Although the evidence is preliminary, the reported success rate of self-cure, using the cheapest and most available psychoactive substance, is persuasive. It lends credence to the reports of male crack users in Brazil and heroin users in the Netherlands and, at the very least, deserves further investigation. The data certainly suggest that ganja is neither a precondition nor a gateway to crack use. In fact, nine of the 33 women had never used ganja at all and reported hating “even the smell of it.”

Although the majority of the participants in the study had smoked ganja prior to using crack cocaine, the number of years elapsing between initiating crack use ranged from one to thirteen, suggesting no automatic or direct linkage either physiologically or socially between ganja and crack. The youngest woman in the study (16 years old), said that she started using a seasoned spliff because her boyfriend wanted her to try it but spoke adamantly against pipe use.

Moreover, for the women who were ganja users prior to becoming crack users, the number of years elapsing between initiating crack use ranged from one to thirteen, suggesting, again, no automatic or direct linkage.

These findings indicate that rather than serving as a gateway to crack, cannabis may be instrumental in both the prevention and treatment of crack addiction. Of the 14 women who succeeded in discontinuing crack use, 13 attribute their success to the use of ganja, either because of its capacity to control the damage of crack cocaine use physiologically or, in one case, because of its religious value. Moreover, it is clear that the women who combined ganja and crack were at least able to maintain their weight and care for their children.

These findings beg the need to revisit the notion of multiple drug use in a more culture-specific context. Far from being the hedonistic multi-drug users that present so many challenges to prevention and treatment programs, the women in this study were actually self-medicating, either to modify the effects of pipe smoking or to relinquish the habit all together.


Crack is a highly addictive form of cocaine, with serious social consequences. The exponential increase in crack use worldwide has generated an urgent demand for treatment and prevention programs and international development agencies in the United States have invested considerable monetary and technical support to develop such programs in Jamaica as well as other countries. It is common knowledge, however, that health and social service programs are not automatically transferable from one society to another. Effectiveness requires that such programs be designed according to what is meaningful and important in the culture where it is to be applied.

Thus the commitment to demand reduction and treatment programs by both the Jamaican and United States governments has created a need for continued monitoring of the knowledge, attitudes and practices surrounding substance consumption and distribution. Not only is ganja typically not thought of as a drug in Jamaica, it has assumed a positive value for limiting the ravages of cocaine as an appetite stimulant that counteracts the anorexia of cocaine addiction, and as an assistive substance in relinquishing cocaine addiction.

Yet the tendency to include ganja, often as a starting point, for drug prevention and intervention in Jamaica continues to exist. Whether or not the use of ganja is a remedy for crack addition in the biological, psychological or sociological sense, programs that fail to acknowledge the different cultural meanings and experiences attached to these two illicit substances ultimately will lose credibility with the very population they need to serve. The experience of women who have managed to relinquish their cocaine habit without expensive professional intervention would appear to be highly consequential for the design of effective, low cost, culture-specific treatment programs both in the United States and internationally.