Ian Thomson

Bob Marley: from reggae icon to Marlboro Man of marijuana

A new line for the world’s ninth most lucrative dead celebrity

Bob Marley: from reggae icon to Marlboro Man of marijuana
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A kind of political correctness dictates that one should not be too hard on Bob Marley, who died of cancer in 1981 aged 36. His loping, mid-tempo reggae sounds slightly vapid to my ears, but for many non-Jamaicans, Bob Marley is reggae; he remains an international Rasta celebrity, honoured with a waxwork at Madame Tussaud’s as well as a Jamaican Order of Merit (the third-highest honour in the Jamaican honours system).

Last week, the Bob Marley estate announced that a special ‘Marley Natural’ marijuana blend was to go on sale legally in the United States next year. A private equity group based in Seattle, Privateer Holdings, has teamed up with Marley’s widow and children to mass-produce an ‘heirloom’ strain of Jamaican ganja in the form of lotions, creams and loose leaves. Marley is poised to become the face of the international movement to legalise marijuana.

Ironically, in spite of the Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller’s pledge that marijuana would be legalised this month, the drug is still illegal in Marley’s native Jamaica. Those found in possession can expect a hefty fine or custodial sentence. Marley nevertheless smoked the herb, cooked with the herb, drank the herb as a tea, grew the herb, passed the herb to his friends, and praised the herb in song. Wittingly or not, he made the herb big business. Bottles of skin moisturiser cream extracted from ‘Bob Marley’ cannabis-fibre oil, together with Bob T-shirts, Bob key rings, Bob headphones, Bob watches and Bob CDs are now sold all over the world (not least to dreadlocked Japanese). Impressively, Marley is ninth on Forbes’s annual list of top-earning dead celebrities; he rakes in around $20 million a year for the estate. Now he is to be the Marlboro Man of marijuana.

A few years ago in Jamaica I met Bob Marley’s old associate Leeroy James Campbell, who since 1990 had been a self-appointed ‘Scientific Ganja Researcher’ to the Jamaican nation. Brother Leeroy (as he insisted I address him) ran a guest-house on the north coast cluttered with Marley memorabilia and potted cannabis plants everywhere. In his swimming briefs and silver-arm bracelets, Leeroy was a dreadlocked member of the Ethiopian Coptic Church of Zion, for which marijuana and the rituals of smoking marijuana are holy. (He died in 2009, aged 80, of lung cancer aggravated by marijuana consumption.)

We were relaxing by his poolside when he said to me, ‘Brother Ian, would you like to blow some bush-tea? Like Brother Bob did?’

Smiling, Brother Leeroy licked Rizla papers into a carrot-shaped cheroot, plugged one end with a cardboard filter, lit it, puffed on it, then passed it to me. Out of curiosity I drew on the king-size creation and waited for the mellow Marley mood to come — but nothing happened. Instead I watched smoke leak like treacle from Brother Leeroy’s nostrils.

As a vaunted ‘ganja guru’, Leeroy had worked in tandem with Marley’s widow Rita Marley to promote marijuana as a medicine for migraine and Aids wasting syndrome, as well as the chronic pain of MS. I myself, unfortunately, had begun to experience feelings of confusion, if not incipient paranoia. The potent ‘Special Brew’ varieties of marijuana currently available in Jamaica and Britain might be reason to criminalise possession. After smoking the whole of one of Brother Leeroy’s cigarettes, and while halfway through another, I could feel myself lofting giddily upwards on clouds of holy Bob smoke.

I felt I needed to ask if marijuana could cause (or at least aggravate) mental illness. Far from giving me a fruitful, freakout-free mystical experience, it had taken me to a far continent of anxiety. What horrible stuff it was. How right the Jamaican government was to outlaw Marley’s campaign to legalise it. I began to rehearse a little speech on the matter. But then I remembered that Leeroy had been a policeman: Bob Marley’s arguments for decriminalisation would have been familiar to him. Incredibly he had served in the Jamaica Constabulary, admittedly a long time ago — 1949 — but still it seemed odd.

‘Did you make any arrests?’

‘Once — for sheep rustling.’ Sheep? In Jamaica? (The grey-bearded face nodded. Definitely sheep.) Little clouds of blue smoke were now swirling round the ex-policeman, who had become a shimmering mass of pointillist particles. What to do? On the pretext of feeling tired I went to my room, a thin-walled cubicle hard by the swimming pool with a bedside photograph of Bob Marley (who else?) puffing on a giant reefer. I lay on the bed, fully dressed, rigid with fear, with the blinds pulled down.

From the direction of the pool I could hear Brother Leeroy wheezing and coughing. I thought I caught the word ‘spy’; I contemplated running, but if I was seen to leave now (especially if I was seen to leave at great speed) it would look like an admission of guilt (that I was a government spy). The situation had really become quite bad.

Two hours later, however, I was back at the poolside, feeling bright and beatifically attuned. ‘Brother man, how you feel?’ said Leeroy.

‘I feel all right.’

‘How all right?’

‘All right all right.’

‘Brother man, tell me exactly how you feel,’ Leeroy was asking me now.

‘Good,’ I said. ‘Full of the most natural Marley vibes.’

‘Nice, nice,’ said the ex-policeman, with a sincere Ethiopian Coptic smile. Or not so nice? Marijuana had put my day literally out of joint; I had gone, if not quite to pot, then grievously awry. The ‘Marley Natural’ ganja products, when they hit the market next year, will benefit the singer’s estate, but not, perhaps, the human brain.