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State Department Highlights Global Anti-Marijuana Discrimination Against Rastafarians

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A new report from the U.S. Department of State shines a spotlight on how anti-marijuana laws around the world further religious discrimination against Rastafarians.

The 2014 Report on International Religious Freedom, released Wednesday by Secretary of State John Kerry, “attempts to give voice to those oppressed people and to document when and where the universal human right to religious freedom was violated.”

In nearly 200 country-by-country summaries, the document details discrimination that people of various faiths face from governments and non-state actors, and quite a bit of attention is paid to the plight of Rastafarians who are criminalized for using marijuana — an important sacrament for many in the religion.

Rastafarians in Barbados, for example “were concerned about the government’s prohibition on marijuana use, which they said was integral to their religious rituals,” the report says. “Rastafarians reported extra scrutiny from police and immigration officials” as a result.

In Jamaica, “Rastafarians stated that elements of their religious observance, such as wearing dreadlocks and smoking marijuana, presented serious barriers to their ability to find employment and achieve professional status,” the State Department writes.

“Rastafarian leaders stated their members continued to experience police profiling and targeting due to their belief in the religious use of marijuana,” the report’s section on The Bahamas says. “They also expressed concern that prison officials cut the dreadlocks of Rastafarian detainees held in short-term custody, and that prisoners at Bahamas Correctional Services were not regularly provided with meals that met their religious dietary requirements.”

Anti-marijuana discrimination against Rastafarians is also reported in DominicaSaint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda and Saint Kitts and Nevis.

In Panama, Rastafarians appear to have experienced so much discrimination that many have felt compelled to compromise the full expression of their faith. “Rastafarian leaders reported that arbitrary strip searches by police agents decreased significantly over the last decade since the international Rastafarian leadership decided to improve the group’s image by wearing tam hats and refraining from smoking cannabis in public,” the State Department writes.

As marijuana legalization gains popularity around the world and anti-cannabis stigma begins to dissipate, however, things appear to be improving in some places. “While some Rastafarians stated they had also experienced other forms of societal discrimination,” the report says of Jamaica, “others said such discrimination had diminished considerably in recent years, especially as Rastafarian styles in clothing and music gained wider acceptance.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the State Department report neglects to discuss the fact that the U.S. federal government does not recognize any religious exemption to existing laws that treat use, possession or cultivation of marijuana as criminal acts subject to arrest, fine and incarceration.

This May, for example, a judge in Indiana rejected a man’s request to reduce marijuana charges on account of the fact that he is a practicing Rastafarian. That is just one of numerous cases over decades in which state and federal courts in the U.S. have rejected arguments that marijuana use can be a legitimate religious activity and in such instances should not be criminalized.

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