Last month I made my first trip outside of the US since my release from prison. I served 21 years of a mandatory minimum 25-year sentence in the feds, for first-time, nonviolent drug offenses including selling weed and acid. I was incarcerated in 1993 and released in 2014. Now, I have a brand new, reissued passport in my possession and the world at my feet.
I decided to visit Jamaica with my wife because the country has always been a mythical place to me, from Bob Marley and the Rastafarians to the laid-back lifestyle. It was a romanticized, outlaw kind of thing.
And despite my “addiction,” I wanted to partake of some smoke, too.
Since getting off probation in January of this year, no longer subject to pee tests, and actually being able to smoke without facing a return to prison as a consequence, I’d celebrated my own private 4/20 more than once.
Drugs of all kinds aren’t hard to obtain in prison, of course. I used during my first nine years inside, but then was totally abstinent during my last 12, convinced by society and prison rehabilitation programs that I was an “addict.”
Since my release, I’ve begun consuming alcohol and weed. In making the decision to do so, I painstakingly examined my motives, fearing that I’d hit trouble or end up back in prison. But almost two years later I’m still here, using alcohol and weed socially, and it’s all good.
We arrived in Jamaica and it was as beautiful as I imagined, beaches and palm trees. But as we drove to the resort in Montego Bay, I looked at the contrast between the big hotels and little huts where some of the locals lived. As we pulled into the resort it seemed almost a castle, walled off and fortified. This sealed-off slice of paradise was home for the next seven days.
Despite recent liberalization of Jamaica’s marijuana laws, I still had some concerns about scoring pot. Partly I’d been conditioned, due to prohibition, to assume that marijuana means trouble with the law. Partly I’d heard the stories about how you shouldn’t leave the resort. People told me that dealers would sell you weed then turn you in.
But for real, I didn’t have any problems. I dove in head-first. I mean, fuck, I was in Jamaica, right?
I just asked the guy who brought our bags up to our rooms if he could get me some weed, and it was on. Thurston worked at our resort in Montego Bay, and said he had a connect outside the resort who could drop off whatever I wanted.
“But you have to give me the money first,” Thurston told me in his musical Jamaican accent.
The dealer wasn’t going to bring it up to the room. He didn’t want to meet me, just to drop off the weed with Thurston. That might have signaled some scam—but my spider-sense wasn’t going off, and it was pretty well honed by prison, so I opened negotiations.
“How much for a half ounce?”
“Eighty dollars,” Thurston answered. “Straight fire, mon.”
He might’ve been ripping me off, but in my eyes it was an awesome deal. Despite my paranoia—fueled by the knowledge that over 700,000 people are still arrested for marijuana law violations in my home country each year, the large majority for simple possession—I passed over five twenties. Four for the weed and a hefty $20 tip for Thurston.
“Ten minutes, mon.”
Ten minutes became 30.
During my wait, I scanned a Safety Tips sign next to the big-screen TV in our room that didn’t work. It outlined a set of rules for the resort. A regulation at the bottom caught my eye: “Purchasing, selling or the use of illegal drugs while in Jamaica is against the laws of the country you will be arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. There are undercover police that visit our resort periodically and will arrest anyone caught with such illegal substances.”
In my mind, everything was morphing into a 1984-ish scenario. Visions of purchasing weed and ending up in a Jamaican jail cell plagued me. I was just feeding my addiction. I was going to end up back in prison, this time in a foreign country.
Paranoid? Sure. But maybe 21 years earned me the right to some paranoia.
Finally, Thurston showed back up at my door with my bud and some Lion Pride rolling papers.
None of my irrational thinking stopped me from grabbing the cellophane bag of ganja he was holding. I picked up one of the buds and smelled it: kind bud. Exactly what I’d been missing in my life.
To think that a plant has been at the center of so much incarceration and heartache. But Thurston reassured me that ganja was decriminalized in Jamaica now, that cops would only write a ticket, if that, for two ounces or less.
“Can I smoke here in the resort?” I asked.
“Yeah, mon. No problem.” He replied, while advising me to be discreet.
I promptly rolled a joint and smoked it on the balcony.
I idly scoped out the people walking along the beach, wondering if any of them were the undercover agents promised by the Safety Tips sign, thirsting to bust pot tourists.
After smoking half of the joint I was blasted. My wife of 11 years—we married at FCI Gilmer, a federal prison in West Virginia—looked at me in disgust; she never partakes.
It bounced off me. Not even two years out after doing 21-straight, and here I was, off parole, in another country and smoking some bodacious bud. What more could a stoner ask for?
Despite the warnings from friends and family, my wife and I decided that we wanted to go outside the resort, to see some of the real Jamaica. It took us a whole two days—spent stoned, drunk on rum punch and lying in the sun (at least in my case)—to get to it.
Then we took a resort bus down to what they called “The Hip Strip.”
“The Hip Strip” turned out to be a bustling road about a mile long, right off the ports where the cruise ships dump their passengers for a stroll, full of tourists, locals, vendors, cops. It was wide open. We got dropped off in front of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville and drug tourism seemed to be in full effect—or at least the retail aspect. I was smack-dab in the middle of a vibrant open-air drug bazaar, and it only took a moment for a local to make an offer.
I also saw police officers from the Jamaica Constabulary Force slamming a dreadlocked youngster against the wall and rifling through his pockets and backpack. So much for decriminalization.
“Smoke and coke,” a skinny, bald-headed man barked at me in the restroom inside the bar. “Forty a gram for coke,” he said, pressing me.
“I’m good, bro,” I replied, holding out my hands to ward him off as I made my way to the urinal.
After a frozen mango margarita, my wife and I strolled up “The Hip Strip,” Everything was a hustle, with dealers all trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents. In a country where the average wage is $50 dollars a week, the influx of US dollars that pot tourism brings can be a lifeline.
On the strip I met a big, sweaty character who called himself Dr. Feelgood. “I’m the doctor of the island,” he said, “and I got everything you need. Come inside my shop, check it out.” Since I was already holding, I politely declined.
I was offered weed brownies many times. Some of the vendors had baskets of edibles out in the open, right on their hip as they roamed “The Hip Strip”— “Smoke, brownies, coke!” they shouted. It reminded me of being on “the lot” at a Dead show in the ‘80s.
Away from the chaos later in the week, we went on a catamaran. On the front of the sailboat, smoking ganja, my wife by my side, a rum punch in hand, skipping over the sea with the wind in my face—did someone say paradise?
By the end, I became very comfortable smoking weed at the resort. There were kids around so I was a little responsible, but not really. I blazed up on the beach and walking around the grounds. I made the balcony my official 4/20 place, with a little pile of roaches in the corner, a tribute to the marijuana gods.
Finally the week was over. Time to go back to the States. I still had some weed left, but I threw it in the trash.
It was lucky I did. Because when I went through customs in Miami, I was red-flagged and sent down to the secret detainee room.
Read more from The Influence:
I felt like I was back in the SIS Lieutenant’s office in the joint. The Gestapo monitoring my every move. Unsurprisingly, given the biases we all know about, I was surrounded in the detainee room by Mexicans, Nigerians, Colombians and Muslim people. My wife, who was dragged into all this with me, took out her phone to make a call; one of the customs officers ran up and told her no cells allowed.
They kept me on ice for about 30 minutes, asking me what I was doing in Jamaica, how long I stayed, where I was flying back to. I thought I was going to miss my connecting flight.
They let me go but I felt pretty stigmatized. Being an ex-con was the only reason for me being red-flagged. I already did 21 years, I did my parole, and now, on the way back from my first vacation in decades, they put this on me?
But I’d just had a beautiful trip to a mythical land, with magical people and ganja to match. They can’t take that away. Back to St. Louis. Hopefully they’ll have legal marijuana here soon.