HANSON DISTRICT, Jamaica, Feb 26 (AP) -- From a distance, the fiery
rays of the Caribbean sun appear to set a marijuana field ablaze, bathing
the hardy plants in smoldering red and orange.

But a farmer named Thomas tells of a different tale as he lights a fat
marijuana spliff: a tale of an industry scorched at both ends -- by global
competition and the U.S.-led war on drugs.

"This I grow in my own field, the best in Jamaica, high-grade," says
Thomas, standing on the veranda of his small cement home and letting out a
billow of blue smoke. "But I don't grow so much anymore."

Like its banana and sugar industry, Jamaica's once lucrative marijuana
production has fallen a long way since the 1970s, when small planes would
land regularly to fly the precious contraband to the United States.

Caribbean marijuana, largely a Jamaican affair, fed about 20 percent
of world consumption in those days. Today it accounts for less than 5
percent, according to the U.N. Caribbean Drug Control Coordinating
Mechanism, a drug-monitoring program based in Barbados.

"Ganja has been mashed up just like everything we grow ... the
bananas, the sugar. The ganja, it doesn't sell anymore," says Thomas, 66,
who for 40 years has been growing the hemp on the six-acre plot his
grandfather once used to raise tomatoes and cucumbers.

Marijuana growing and consumption is illegal in Jamaica, which is why
Thomas and other growers won't let their surnames be published. But it's
tolerated.

Another reason for anonymity is an agreement by the Jamaican
government that allows American agents to burn illegal crops.

In 1991, Jamaica produced 705 tons of marijuana, according to the U.S.
State Department. The department's most recent figures show a yield of 235
tons in 1997.

"I made enough money in those days," says Omar, another farmer. He and
Thomas say they used to make around $4,000 a year, enough to live on
comfortably. Now, they make half that.

By the early 1980s marijuana had gained widespread local acceptance
with the blessing of reggae heroes like Bob Marley. But it had also earned
the full attention of America's drug fighters.

U.S. customs agents were on the alert and hundreds of acres of fields
throughout the Caribbean were burned.

Thomas says his fields were torched four times.

The U.S. drive also boosted the price for marijuana in North America,
the weed's largest market.

Americans and Canadians responded by growing their own, hardier
strains.

American marijuana "is far superior to Jamaican," says Steve Bloom,
the senior editor at High Times magazine, the bible of American aficionados.
"Jamaican bud is great; you just have to smoke a lot."

North American marijuana tends to be grown in greenhouses where
temperature, water and light are controlled.

Jamaican marijuana is grown now on remote hillsides and in marshes and
swamps where it is harder to detect but is hostage to the weather.

Mexican marijuana has also cut into Jamaica's market, even though it's
considered poor because it's dried out for shipping. American officials
say more is flowing into the United States with the increase in legitimate
trade under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Because Mexican marijuana is so accessible, even Jamaican traffickers
operating in the United States buy it to sell.

Despite Jamaican marijuana's sharp decline in the world, the local
market keeps a slimmed-down industry relatively healthy.

The plant was originally brought to Jamaica by Indian indentured
laborers in the 19th century. Plantation owners used it as a medicinal
herb. Then its popularity spread with the advent in the 1930s of
Rastafarianism, whose adherents considered marijuana holy.

As reggae broadened marijuana's appeal, it began to filter through the
island's rigid class structure.

Today, even though the drug still has followers, its days as a king
crop are over.

Still, old habits die hard.

"I'll never quit growing ganja," says Thomas, with a sly grin. "What
would I smoke?"


...Electronic Evergreen. Courtesy of Richard and Robin Weening, and
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National Alliance for the Legalization of Ganja
Legalize Ganja Campaign
NORML Jamaica

POBox 24, Laughlands, St Ann, JAMAICA West Indies
tel (876) 972-0817 . fax (876) 794-8087 . emails lgc@infochan.com



By MATTHEW J. ROSENBERG