Why Did Reggae Musician Bob Marley Smoke Marijuana?

© Island Records, 2001

The iconic image of Reggae musician Bob Marley is a photograph of him smoking a large marijuana spliff. Why Marley smoked marijuana and what it meant to him and his music might not be what you think.

Bob Marley smoked marijuana because he practiced the Rastafarian religion, wherein the use of "ganja," as it is called, is a holy sacrament. The word ganja is the Rastafarian term derived from the ancient Sanskrit language for marijuana, which itself is a Spanish word for cannabis.

Marley, Marijuana and Religion

One feature of Rastafarianism that is often misrepresented is the ritual use of marijuana. Pious Rastas do not and should not use marijuana recreationally; instead, it is reserved for religious and medicinal purposes. Some Rastafarians do not use it at all. When they do use marijuana, the purpose is to aid in meditation and perhaps help the user achieve greater mystical insight into the nature of the universe. 

Marley converted to Rastafarianism from Christianity in the mid-1960s, well before he achieved any international fame as a reggae musician. His conversion coincided with the conversions of thousands of his fellow Jamaicans of African descent, and as his fame grew, he began to stand as a symbol for both his culture and his religion.

Bob Marley did not use cannabis recreationally and did not see its use as a casual matter. He viewed marijuana as a holy rite, much as Catholics view Holy Communion or some Native Americans view the ceremonial usage of peyote.

Viewing himself as a holy person (as do all Rastafarians), Marley strongly believed that marijuana opened up a spiritual door that allowed him to become the artist and poet he was.

Marley's Career and Activism

Marley's first singles were recorded in 1962, but it was in 1963 that he founded a band that eventually became The Wailers.

Although the band broke up in 1974, he continued to tour and record as Bob Marley and the Wailers. Prior to the breakup, two of the The Wailers' songs from the 1974 album Burnin' gathered cult followings in both the US and Europe, "I Shot The Sheriff" and "Get Up, Stand Up." 

After the band broke up, Marley switched from the ska and rocksteady music styles to a new style that would become known as reggae. Marley's first major hit song was 1975's "No Woman, No Cry," and that was followed by his album Rastaman Vibration, which made the Billboard Top 10 albums list.

In the late 1970s, Marley promoted peace and cultural understanding. He also acted as a cultural ambassador for the Jamaican people and the Rastafarian religion. Even decades after his death, he is revered as a Rastafarian prophet. 

Marley died in 1981 of cancer at the age of 36. He was diagnosed with skin cancer in 1977, but because of religious objections, refused amputation of a toe, a procedure that could have saved his life.