Is it Legal to Get High in the Caribbean?

Marijuana legalization may be a trend in the U.S., but not in the islands

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••• Cannabis. © Manuel/CC by 2.0

In the minds of many travelers, marijuana use is firmly linked to perceptions of Rastafarian culture and Jamaica in general. Just think about how often you've seen a picture of Bob Marley superimposed on a marijuana leaf, for example.

So, it's no shock that many Caribbean travelers arrive with an expectation that smoking some ganja is as free and open as ordering a Red Stripe or frozen daiquiri. Wrong: it may always be "5 o'clock somewhere" in the islands, but it's "420" almost nowhere.

Across the Caribbean, criminal laws against marijuana use remain firmly in place. As a major transit region for drug trafficking between South and Central America and the U.S., Caribbean nations have often borne the brunt in the form of drug crime, which drives much of the violent crime in the region. For that and other cultural reasons (scratch the surface, and you'll find that many Caribbean islands are quite conservative), harsh drug laws remain the norm.

In the U.S., Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon have completely legalized marijuana use, and 23 states and the District of Columbia allow medical-marijuana use. Canada has taken similar steps. But marijuana use and possession for any reason remains illegal in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. Virgin Islands, although the U.S.V.I. has decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.

In Jamaica, many travelers are surprised to learn that marijuana use is illegal despite its role in Rastafarian religious rites and its obvious influence on Jamaican culture in general.

Only in late 2014 did the Jamaican government undertake legislation to decriminalize small amounts (up to two grams) of marijuana, but no law has yet been passed. If you're headed to Cancun, Cozumel, or elsewhere in the Riviera Maya, Mexico has also decriminalized small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

But decriminalized is not the same as illegal, so if you're firing up a spliff on the street you could still be opening yourself up to a fine or other unwanted law-enforcement attention: exactly what you don't need on vacation or in a foreign country where you have little understanding of how the justice system or the local system of institutional bribery works.

And those are the more liberal countries where marijuana is concerned. Elsewhere, from Cuba to Barbados to Dominica and beyond, marijuana use and possession is just plain illegal, and could land you in jail.

For those who still want to take the risk, a few thoughts. First, if you're buying on the street in a tourist area, the weed you're getting is going to be of questionable quality, origin, and composition. Unlike back home, down here you are seen as an easy mark, and street dealers will take advantage of you. If you're dreaming of toking some fine Golden Jamaican Kush, you're likely to be disappointed.

Second, remember this: the vast majority of serious crime in the Caribbean is linked to the drug trade. As such, it normally bypasses tourists. But by involving yourself in a drug transaction, there's always a risk that you can be unintentionally putting yourself in harm's way.

Again, you'll need to weigh your desire to toke up against the possibility of arrest, ripoffs, assault, or worse. My advice: until the laws change, stick to rum and beer and enjoy your trip.