Part two of our look at Dr. Melanie Dreher’s research into ganja use among Jamaican women
by Pete Brady, with illustrations by Tom Arnatt
Cannabis Culture Magazine, 16:Jan/Feb 1999
Our last issue featured an interview with Dr Melanie Dreher, a highly-respected academician and researcher who is probably the world’s foremost authority on ganja use in Jamaica. That interview contained a general overview of Dreher’s 25 years of Jamaican research, while this article will explore what she found out about uses of ganja by Jamaican women and children.
Dreher’s research is interesting and relevant because it challenges the prevailing notion that all drug use during pregnancy is bad for children. Ironically, some of Dreher’s findings suggest that ganja use by mothers during pregnancy, and by their children after birth, might actually be good for children.
Such findings contradict earlier studies. A study conducted in Ottawa during the 1980’s allegedly found that moderate marijuana use (an average of seven joints per week) by mothers during pregnancy caused negative effects in their newborns. These effects included higher levels of irritability, increased tremors and startles, and poorer habituation to light.
Other studies have purported to find similar problems, but Dreher notes that such studies suffer from the same problems that most marijuana studies suffer from. These problems include incorrect assumptions of cause and effect, failure to account for use of other drugs (such as tobacco, alcohol, and cocaine), and unequal comparisons between users from differing socioeconomic groups and lifestyles.
Dreher’s studies largely eliminated such problems by studying “lower-income” women from rural villages in southeastern Jamaica. Dreher selected ganja-using women and compared their children’s health and adjustment with the children of women who had not used ganja during pregnancy. The women chosen were matched by age, health, and economic and educational status, to minimize the effects of class and environmental differences.
Instead of conducting dehumanized scientific research, Dreher chose an anthropological approach which combines solid statistical data with ethnographic observation and interaction. Dreher and her team of researchers became part of the communities they studied, and were given access to the private lives of their subjects. Thus, she was able to determine how and why Jamaican women used ganja, and also to gauge the interactions of ganja with culture, schools and the country’s legal system.
To smoke or not to smoke
Male-dominated rural ganja culture stipulates that most women should not smoke marijuana because it allegedly addles women’s minds, but women are allowed to utilize marijuana medicinally by concocting tinctures and teas which they administer to themselves and their families. Women are also allowed to engage in marijuana production, processing and sales.
Note that these generalizations refer to non-Rastafarian ganja culture. Rasta women have always tended to smoke more than their non-Rasta ganja-using counterparts. Among non-Rasta women, smoking of marijuana has often been a clandestine activity. Women who smoke it openly with men are scrutinized (as are male smokers) to determine if they can intelligently handle cannabis intoxication. If they are able to “smoke as hard as a man” and maintain independence, clarity of mind and social skills, they are called “Roots Daughters,” and given a high degree of respect.
When Dreher first studied Jamaican female ganja use in early 1970’s, she found that few women smoked marijuana. Today, researchers estimate that as many as 50 percent of Jamaican women smoke marijuana. The Roots Daughters are taking root, and forging a feminized version of ganja culture.
This doesn’t mean that Jamaican society encourages women to use ganja during pregnancy. As in Canada and America, Jamaican women are told that using cannabis during pregnancy will severely harm their children. “Old people warn young women that using ganja will cause their babies to be born with Œmashed-up’ brains and cracked skin. Nurses and midwives tell them that ganja use will cause low birth weight and slow development,” Dreher notes.
Nevertheless, many of the women Dreher interviewed smoked or ingested marijuana during pregnancy. Rastafarian women believe that ganja inherently offers medical and spiritual benefits; non-Rasta women said cannabis alleviates the psychological and physical pains associated with being poor and pregnant. In the context of such beliefs, quitting smoking during pregnancy makes no sense.
Poverty was indeed a large factor in women’s ganja decisions. Village culture gives “pampered treatment” only to women having their first child. For many rural women, getting pregnant is just another financial and psychological burden added to the daily struggle of trying to survive. Especially if the baby’s father is unwilling or unable to assist the pregnant mother, women often find themselves condemned by family and friends, or forced to quit school or gainful employment because of their pregnancies.
Almost all the women reported that “when their pregnancies became obvious, they discontinued going to dances, bars, parties, shows, and even to church,” Dreher reports. “The depression that accompanies unwanted pregnancy in a fragile economic environment is serious, and women’s use of ganja to provide a brighter outlook may well be a serious attempt to handle the most difficult social, physical and psychological circumstances.”
Women told Dreher that ganja relieved depression and feelings of fear and hopelessness; they also commonly reported that ganja helped relieve the physical discomforts associated with pregnancy. They used it to combat the nausea and vomiting typically found in the first trimester. They enjoyed ganja’s ability to enhance appetite. Ganja was also used to combat fatigue, which was especially important to the women who had to work and/or take care of children during pregnancy. Several women said they used ganja to help relieve aches and pains, and to help them sleep better and relax.
Such uses correspond to cannabis lore and medical research from around the world, which contains numerous references to the use of ganja for the abovementioned conditions. Dreher notes that Jamaican cannabis culture is partially a result of immigrants who brought ganja tradition with them when they emigrated from India, which has a long history of medical and spiritual ganja use.
Ganja babies rule!
Although Dreher conducted and published results from several Jamaican field observations and experiments, perhaps her most relevant research is that which examined children during a five-year observation period, as well as research which examined the effects of marijuana on Jamaican schoolchildren.
In one study, children of ganja-using mothers were tested and compared with children of non-ganja using mothers. Tests were conducted when the children were 1, 3, and 30 days old, and at ages four and five.
No statistically significant differences in developmental abilities were found, except that the 30-day test showed that children of ganja-using mothers were superior to children of non-ganja mothers in two ways. These children had better organization and modulation of sleeping and waking, and they were less prone to stress-related anxiety.
The release of these study results was considered politically incorrect by anti-marijuana factions in government and academia, because they so directly contradicted the oft-repeated assertion that prenatal marijuana use hurts children and that marijuana users were poor mothers. Dreher’s studies found the opposite: ganja mothers were often better mothers than their non-ganja using counterparts. Their households were often cleaner, better-funded and more fun than those where cannabis was shunned!
Another Dreher study (conducted in the early 1980’s) compared children from two small Jamaican communities: Dover and Hawley. Dover is a relatively non-isolated community which is directly connected to a large sugar-cane estate. Hawley is an isolated mountainous community with few roads, services or direct connections to the outside world. Residents of both communities use ganja, but Hawley residents can easily cultivate their own ganja and have access to reliable supplies of it, while Dover residents are forced to buy marijuana on the commercial market, which often leads to shortages.
Both communities endure crushing poverty. The poor Dover families Dreher studied didn’t have enough money to send their children to private schools, which meant that their public school environments were often crowded, degraded and unpleasant.
Hawley children suffer a similar fate. They sit three to a desk, and are required to help repair and clean the school, as are their parents.
Children in both communities begin working at an early age. They do laundry, chop wood, carry water, tend farm animals, go fishing, and help with market visits. Of the two groups, Hawley children are the ones who work harder to contribute to their family’s survival.
Ganja mother’s ganja medicine
How and why do caretakers in these two communities administer marijuana to children?
Dreher found widespread belief that ganja enhances health. Ganja infusions are often prescribed for colds, fevers, diarrhea, anorexia, colic, asthma, bronchial wheezing, croup, teething discomfort, and hyperactivity.
Ganja is also used as a strength-enhancing potion to enable children to perform arduous tasks. The use of ganja to increase work performance is a common theme in Jamaican ganja culture; men use it to help them survive in the torrid sugar cane fields, women use it to give them strength to do lots of tiring household chores by hand.
Ganja mothers also believe that ganja helps their children perform better in school. Ganja does this by increasing children’s ability to concentrate on schoolwork, to pay attention to what the teacher is saying, not to be distracted by school mates or the activities of other classes, to sit quietly in class, to complete homework even when tired, and to handle the stress of examinations. Jamaican women refer to ganja as “Wisdom Weed,” and as the king of bush teas which had sometimes saved lives when doctors were unavailable.
Ganja women have two primary methods for preparing ganja infusions consumed by children. Ganja tea is made by boiling or steeping leaves and stems, then adding large quantities of sugar and, sometimes, milk. Flavor-rich ingredients such as anise or mint are sometimes added to teas to disguise their taste; family members are sometimes unaware that they are consuming ganja tea. This also lends more credibility to Dreher’s findings because it eliminates the placebo effect which can occur when people have been told that they have ingested a drug.
Green and cured ganja is used in these teas, but most women expressed a preference for uncured ganja. Teas are usually given to the children in the morning an average of two to three days per week.
Ganja tonic is prepared by soaking cured or uncured leaves in wine or white rum from two to nine days. Tonic is stored and used by the dropper or teaspoonful for colds, fever, pain or other discomfort. It is also favoured for its calmative effects, so it is often used before bedtime or for naps. Tonic is considered stronger than tea and thus is not given to children on a routine basis; they receive it only when there’s a significant health or behavior problem.
Too much of a good thing?
It should be noted that these differing preparation methods definitely affect the medicinal and psychoactive properties of the teas and infusions. Alcohol extracts THC from marijuana whereas putting marijuana in water might not. The use of heat during preparation also changes the properties and effects of THC and other cannabinoids. These preparation specifics might account for the differing medicinal qualities of teas and infusions.
There’s a variety of opinion about the best age for initiating children into ganja use, but the most important concern among Dreher’s women were that doses must be carefully titrated in accordance with children’s age and previous ganja experience. Younger children receive weak tea, perhaps made from one leaf in hot water, and are observed to see how ganja affects them. Subsequent doses are modified accordingly.
Mothers admitted that this titration process is only approximate, and that accidents do occur. One woman recalled that she once served her family tea that had been prepared the previous night, then left standing overnight, then reheated for breakfast. Her husband and children passed out and slept the entire day! Other women reported that overly strong doses of ganja resulted in two symptoms: hyperactivity or sleepiness. Interestingly, nobody blames the ganja when these unexpected effects appear. Instead, they blame the inexperience or incompetence of the mother.
Economic circumstances and the changing dynamics of daily living influenced how ganja was administered to children. In households where ganja was not easily available, parents often gave less of it to their children and kept most of it for themselves. They administered ganja only during emergencies, and after using cheaper remedies. In households where ganja was in good supply, children were given regular infusions for use as a preventive, rather than curative, medicine.
Ganja is often subject to selective administration determined by sibling rank, duties and age. Mothers might give ganja to their oldest son when he is helping out in the cane fields, but not to the younger daughters whose chores are relatively easy. During times of sickness, parents who regularly smoked ganja would sacrifice smoking in order to have medicine for their children. During children’s vacations, when life was less rigorous, mothers sometimes withheld ganja because they felt it was not needed.
Another factor which influenced ganja use by children was poverty; some families could not afford to purchase as much medicine as they would have liked.
Prejudice and stupidity
Dreher’s comparison of the Hawley and Dover families produced several results which are useful when examining societal attitudes toward marijuana in North America and elsewhere. One of the most interesting of these results involves the attitudes of teachers toward children whom they suspect come from ganja-using households.
Dreher found that teachers had an overwhelmingly negative view of marijuana which tainted their feelings about children and parents. Dreher carefully tracked teachers to find out which children teachers suspected were using ganja. In almost every case, the teachers were wrong about who was using ganja, and their errors were usually based on bias and ignorance. Instead of having any accurate ideas about the effects of ganja, teachers selected children from the poorest families who performed badly in school and were frequently absent, as being ganja-using children.
Such prejudice led to laughable results. Teachers suspected a Hawley household of sending heavy ganja-users to school, but the children in question had not had any ganja because their mother was too poor to procure any!
Teachers also said that two particular sets of children were not using ganja, and Dreher suspected that teachers made this evaluation because the children’s families had money and elevated community status. In fact, the children from these families were heavy ganja users. In many cases, children from non-ganja using families were less successful in school than ganja children.
Facts confounded expectations in other ways. Women who were actively engaged in producing, buying, selling and administering marijuana often had the best-run households and the smartest children. One mother, a Rastafarian named Pansy, had her oldest child selling marijuana when Pansy was not at home. Yet, Pansy’s children were ranked by teachers and principals as among the most intelligent, diligent and well-behaved of all students; they were ranked at the top of their classes.
Jamaican ganja women do not believe that marijuana can make a dunce into a genius, or vice-versa. When Dreher suggested to women with poorly-performing children that marijuana might be one of the reasons, the women denied it by saying that ganja can only enhance what is already there. “If a child be a dunce,” one woman said, “[the use of ganja] can only make him a smarter dunce.”
Teachers, on the other hand, refused to believe that ganja had any positive effects at all. When confronted by correlations between ganja use and good school performance, for example, teachers would say only that if children were not using ganja they would be doing even better.
Children learn to respect the herb
Medicinal ganja use apparently does not lead to increased “recreational” use or poor childhood adjustment. Indeed, Dreher’s research indicates that children learn early on to respect the power of the plant. They learn that it is to be used in a prescribed set and setting, for the purposes of health, strength, spirituality and community participation. Children in rural Jamaican villages are not running around out of control, rolling up spliffs whenever they want to. Even adolescent children know not to grab ganja and roll their own; they wait to be invited to smoke by their parents.
If Dreher’s reports are accurate, Jamaican ganja children are far more capable than children in most North American households. When I spoke with Dreher, she noted that the lives of poor Jamaican children are harder than the lives of most North American children.
“Most of them have had no access to medical care at all, not even immunizations,” she said. “They live in often primitive situations, have substandard housing and schooling, and are subject to societal prejudice and other inequities. Yet, they are for the most part integral members of their communities, essential for the economic well-being of their families. Most of them do well in school while also helping out with difficult chores at home which require both intelligence and considerable physical strength. We cannot say for sure that ganja contributes to their competency, but we can say that ganja is a major part of their lives and that its use does not appear to be having an overtly negative effect on their ability to enjoy life or do what’s expected of them.”
Dreher is very careful when discussing the applicability of her Jamaica studies to other countries. She says that “a Jamaican child’s ganja consumption supervised by an adult who regulates dosage and frequency is far different from an eight-year-old American child smoking marijuana of unknown origin and purity, purchased from a twelve-year-old in a schoolyard.”
What seems obvious is that Jamaican familial ganja use is part of an empowering folk medicine culture which values independence, natural remedies, and community over pharmaceuticals, doctors, and anti-ganja prejudice. Given the difficult living conditions imposed on rural Jamaicans by colonialism, capitalism, and cannabis prohibition, they have managed a miracle, producing healthy children who use ganja to their advantage.
“It is kind of amusing,” Dreher notes, “that in America a woman who in any way exposes her children to marijuana is considered a bad mother, but in Jamaica a woman who has ganja but does not prepare it for her children is considered a bad mother.”
“I don’t want to belittle the problems or concerns of North American parents who worry about drug use among children,” Dreher continued, “but it’s very possible that marijuana is being blamed for problems it has nothing to do with- such as poor nutrition, societal decay, lackluster schools, and incompetent parenting. We need to be very careful not to ignore the social setting and ideology that surrounds substance use in different societies when we attempt to evaluate how a drug affects people or society. My Jamaican studies indicate that, in the case of marijuana, we might want to re-examine our assumptions and myths, especially when they contradict reality.”