Christians in Antigua approach prime minister to voice deep unease at cannabis smoking in churches

By Chris Eyte |
Antiguan Prime Minister Browne speaking to a gathering of Rastafari about the use of Cannabis in July 2021
Antiguan Prime Minister Browne speaking to a gathering of Rastafari about the use of Cannabis in July 2021. | Youtube/ABS TV Antigua

At a meeting with Prime Minister Gaston Browne, The Antigua Barbuda Evangelical Alliance (ABEA) has voiced deep unease about cannabis drug users disrespecting sacred spaces on the sovereign island nation. 

The House of Representatives approved decriminalizing marijuana in the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill on Feb. 6 2018. The drug had been previously made illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1973, signed by British Governor Wilfred Jacobs. 

However, representatives of ABEA met with Prime Minister Gaston Browne on Friday (June 7) to express frustrations about people smoking the powerful herb in public on the islands, including at sites and during events considered sacred to the Christian faith, according to Pointville Communications Inc

Concerns were particularly expressed about users smoking marijuana in and around church buildings and cemeteries during funerals. 

Those present from the ABEA included President Olson Daniel; executive member, The Rev. Christopher Weekes; public relations officer, The Rev. Fitzgerald Semper; and Clovis St Romain, the general secretary. 

“We asked the government to undertake a programme of education to inform the public that marijuana use in public places is not legal,” Semper reportedly said after the meeting.

“[PM Browne] said there are those who mis-interpret the decriminalization of marijuana as permission to smoke openly in public and the Christian leaders are concerned about the message this is sending especially to the younger more impressionable members of society.”

Semper told the prime minister that a pastor known to him personally had found a man attending his church service holding a marijuana spliff in his hand. The pastor believed this was disrespectful to the church meeting happening at the time.

The evangelical alliance requested that local media on television and radio be deployed in public service announcements to promote the message that smoking cannabis publicly is not allowed. 

Browne has supported the overturning of the laws on cannabis in part to give followers of the Rastafari religion sacramental rights to use ganja, or wisdom weed, as cannabis is variously called in the community, within religious rites in meditation. 

The prime minister has been keen to build relations with the Rastafari community, whom he sees as having suffered oppression under the British for many years, because the drug was formerly illegal. Antigua and Barbuda achieved independence in 1981. 

The Caribbean Customs Law Enforcement Council previously reported a statement given by PM Browne on the passing of the laws for marijuana, which included for medical use. Individuals are allowed to possess 15g of cannabis for personal use and four plants are allowed per household “to take the criminal element out of cannabis production.” 

“The use of marijuana is now socially acceptable,” said Browne at the time. “It is, in essence, a part of the culture of the country. I want to make it abundantly clear that my government is not advocating the use of cannabis; we are against anything that is smoked.

“We do accept, though, on the other hand, that marijuana utilized in different forms has significant medicinal benefits and certainly we’ll move pretty quickly to ensure that we legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.”

On Saturday (June 8), Browne emphasized his public support of both respecting church sanctuaries and also users of cannabis within legal limits on the Browne and Browne radio show for Pointe FM 99.1. He stressed that smoking cannabis is banned in public but allowed in homes. 

On the programme, where Browne acknowledged issues affecting Antiguans such as cruise ships dumping waste, he reminded listeners of the importance of respecting each other’s ethical values. 

“Even on the whole issue in terms of respecting people’s space,” said Browne on the radio show, “I had a group of a few pastors last week who were very concerned that some of our youngsters continue to go into church sanctuaries with spliffs, and when you get to that level you are taking it too far.”

The prime minister elaborated on the fact marijuana is allowed in contexts in the form of medicine for ailments or in the privacy of homes, but it has not been legalized for public recreational purposes, if nothing else due to the threat posed by sanctions against the country if it did not meet international obligations.   

“You have to respect people’s values,” continued Browne on the radio show, “and whereas many of us are very tolerant and open to the use of marijuana, there are some who are offended and if within a sanctuary they insist there is to be no marijuana use, or use of a cigarette, you have to respect the church. So I have an obligation to remind our people that the use of cigarettes or marijuana or any form of smoking in public is prohibited by law.

“Even when we go to funerals we see a number of our citizens smoking openly, as though it is permissible by law. We have decriminalized the use of marijuana and we expect people to use it for personal enjoyment in the comfort of their homes but not everyone is comfortable with inhaling secondary smoke through marijuana or cigarettes.”   

The prime minister underlined that the message of no smoking in public must also be obeyed for those using tobacco. He also called on respect for church institutions: “As we evolve as a people, we have to become more respectful of the values of certain institutions.”

Browne’s comment about public smoking of cannabis appears to contradict earlier comments he made two years ago at a ‘Grow Antigua Barbuda Cannabis License Ceremony’ televised address, that was recorded by ABS TV Antigua. 

Speaking to the Rastafari community about the licensing of cannabis, he seemingly encouraged the Rastafarians to smoke ganja in public. 

“This is really a great day and I am so happy for Rastafari, to see that Rastafari has been mainstreamed,” Browne said in the videoed event. 

“You don’t have to worry about police, or Babylon coming to chase you for a spliff. You can smoke your spliff in public if you wish, even though technically we don’t want to encourage that, but nobody trouble you, and generally you can carry your 15 gramme and nobody troubling you. That is how empowering my administration is.”

During this previous address, Browne went on to criticize European and American nations for previously criminalizing some young people and others for smoking marijuana, but now “they have done a flip”, he said and were looking to cultivate and produce marijuana and related products for profit. 

“We have to make sure we get ahead of the curve and generate a sustaining and profitable industry,” he said at the event. 

Rastafari is an Africa-focused religion, which began after Haile Selassie I became King of Ethiopia in 1930. Followers believe Selassie is God and he will reunite descendants of African slaves with the originating country on the African continent. Ganja smoking is seen by adherents to be an essential part of their devotions, to support their sense of spirituality. 

Operation World (OW), an evangelical ministry that examines statistics related to Christianity and issues prayer guides, states on its website that almost all Antiguans are Christian “by background”, including a large proportion of evangelicals. They encourage prayer “for revival that galvanizes Christians to prayer, and for involvement that impacts their society.”