Photo: Jacana

This Cannabis Farm Tour Shows First-Hand What Makes Jamaican Weed so Special

by Nickolaus Hines May 13, 2024

It’s easy to find quality cannabis in Jamaica. That said, it’s also easy to be duped into buying subpar weed from one of the many hawkers targeting tourists in resort towns. Yet what connoisseurs and the general cannabis curious public can trust on first sight is a brand that opens the door to tourists and locals alike to see where it’s all grown.

Cannabis, despite the strong cultural ties, is not legal in Jamaica. There’s a medical cannabis system in Jamaica, however, and possession of small amounts was decriminalized in 2015.

On a recent trip to the island, I walked through Ocho Rios and met some entrepreneurial business owners with a side hustle of selling Jamaica’s most famous crop. Some were transparent about their product, others left the details a little hazy. All were more than happy to talk at length about Jamaican cannabis beyond the stereotypes. The next day, I took an even deeper dive into Jamaica’s cannabis culture by getting out to the countryside with Jacana to see a working cannabis farm.

Photo: Jacana

Jacana started in 2018. There are Jacana dispensaries in Ocho Rios, Kingston, and New Kingston, as well as more than 70 distribution partners that sell Jacana products. The brand exports medical cannabis to Europe, and in the United States, the CBD-based Jacana Wellness brand is available in parts of the country.

“We wanted to make a space where people can come in here and know that they can find something specific they’re looking for,” Jack Smith, who cofounded Jacana with his wife Alexandra Chong, said as we walked through the Ocho Rios dispensary. “But also a space for the curious to feel comfortable just walking in and learning more about what they want.”

Jacana’s Ocho Rios dispensary. Photo: Jacana

Chong grew up in Ocho Rios, and the couple put a strong emphasis on making Jacana a Jamaican company through and through. The Ocho Rios shop has reclaimed bricks from Kingston. On the packaging, “Product of Jamaica” sits right under the Jacana brand name.

Jacana cofounder Alexandra Chong. Photo: Jacana

“Internationally, there’s a race for who is going to become a cannabis destination,” Smith said. “One of the reasons why my wife and I started Jacana is because with the world opening up to cannabis, it would be a travesty if Jamaica got left behind. There’s Cali weed and Moroccan hash — we’re making sure that Jamaica has a spot on the international podium.”

That starts at home with letting tourists experience and learn about the country’s cannabis first-hand. The dispensaries are welcoming, and Jacana has limited-run partnerships for products with other local businesses, like Pure Chocolate Company next door to Jacana’s Ocho Rios location. On 4/20, Jacana held a cannabis festival in the center of the Island Village shopping area.

The best way to get a feel for what makes cannabis on the island so special, however, is to go out to Jacana’s farm.

Outdoor cannabis farming takes center stage

Photo: Jacana

The driving force behind Jacana is the farm itself, and it’s open to visitors for local-led tours that go as deep on the plant as people are looking to go.

The $80 premium tour walks through the full cannabis life cycle highlighted on various areas of the farm, followed by a lunch, spliff rolling experience, and tour of Jacana’s dispensary in Ocho Rios. The $120 exclusive tour adds in a section on Jacana’s cannabis lab and manufacturing facility, while private tours (price on request) make for a more intimate exclusive tour experience.

The tours are about five hours long when accounting for transportation to and from the farm, with pick up and drop offs at and around Ocho Rios accommodations. It’s intimate with a maximum of 10 people on each tour, and everyone must be 18 years or older.

Photo: Jacana

The 100-acre farm is in the mountains of St. Ann Parish, nestled in a wider 2,000 acre property. Jacana’s farm sits on what was once an organic farm, and it’s certified organic to this day. Chong met with three generations of the family who owns the wider property to pitch them on dedicating part of their farm to cannabis. It worked, and Jacana now has a 100 year lease on the 100 acres.

Cannabis grows on only a small part of the property. A nursery and a 10,000-square-foot processing facility that can handle everything from flower to extracts are on-site. The welcome center with a small shop is attached to a covered patio. There’s also a food and herb garden that’s tapped for worker meals and the tour lunch.

“We have our own testing facility, so we know what’s in it and what’s not” — Jack Smith

On the drive to the farm along a bumpy rural road, Smith wistfully talked about the importance of place. Terroir — a French word mostly used for wine that broadly means the environmental and cultural factors that make a certain region’s products unique — is near and dear to Jacana as a Jamaica-first brand.

Indoor cannabis is going to be similar no matter where it’s grown. Indoor cannabis from Jamaica won’t be all that different than that from one of the many legal areas of the United States where indoor cannabis is grown. There’s a time and a place for indoor cannabis, but presumably connoisseurs traveling to Jamaica wouldn’t want what they could get elsewhere, just like people who travel for food wouldn’t want to eat at an American fast food chain for every meal while they travel.

Photo: Jacana

The debate over whether indoor or outdoor grown cannabis is superior is never ending. The science behind the differences is lacking, and strict cannabis laws have kept away most serious research. Ask a regular consumer, however, and there’s typically a preference. For some, the more dense flower and heavily controlled buds from indoor grows is preferred. Others, including myself, prefer things more natural. That’s where one can get a better sense of why location matters. Again, replicable, high-quality studies are lacking for any type of scientific proof. Yet it seems intuitive that conditions unique to a certain place produce location-specific cannabis.

Smith believes it’s not hard to imagine cannabis sold in a way similar to wine in the future, where ganja gets a Jamaican designation in the way that Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France. But for Jamaica’s product to stand out from the masses of indoor cannabis, it first must lean into the natural and cultural aspects that Jamaica provides. That means leaning into sun-grown plants on outdoor farms — and being transparent for those who want to see it themselves.

Experiencing a Jamaica cannabis farm with Jacana

Photo: Jacana

The tours are customized to the level of knowledge the guests have, and tours can get as deep or as surface level as needed. Either way, it’s an experience you can’t easily find elsewhere.

A middle aged couple from North Carolina joined me on my tour. They were staying at a Sandals resort in Jamaica and had booked the tour through the resort as soon as they started planning their vacation.

Our guide, Khalil, started us at a small plot near the welcome center. Jacana is regulated and licensed by the government. As such, you can’t touch the plants that make it to dispensary shelves. At the entry plot, guests can walk among the plants, touch them, pick a leaf, and take all the pictures they want.

Photo: Nickolaus Hines

Before we reached the main cannabis farm, we passed the vegetable and herb garden. Khalil walked us through rows of mint, rosemary, okra, papaya, Scotch bonnet peppers, and other plants. There are also medicinal herbs used in traditional Jamaican cooking and remedies like leaf of life, guinea hen weed, sour sop, and ram goat dashalong.

Then came the cannabis. What guests see on the farm tour depends on what’s growing at the time and what stage the plants are at. It takes about four months, depending on the strain, to go from young plant to harvest. Jacana has the space and capacity to do a harvest every two weeks and start new plants every two weeks. Other than a few internationally known strains that are always in high demand, Jacana grows an ever-changing set of plants that thrive in the Jamaican climate.

Khalil took us through the section for international distribution before reaching Jacana’s mother plants (those kept in a stage of life where clones can be cut to continue the same genetic line). A safe room nearby is used to protect these mother plants during hurricanes and inclement weather. An area for young plants still getting their roots leads to adolescents being acclimated under a greenhouse tarp. Next to one of the labs, a few rows of experimental varieties grow in a straight line.

Photo: Jacana

Jacana’s commitment to sustainability touches every part of the tour. As an organic certified farm, natural methods of pest control replace harmful pesticides. Sunflowers at the entrance to the flowering area keep pollinators preoccupied, for example, and water comes from the nearby White River. Coconut husks naturally filter the soil and help prevent root rot.

“Outdoor, the plant gets to be itself,” Khalil said while pointing to two plots, each with a different strain, that have plants of the same age that have different visible characteristics. “Indoor, the focus is on THC potency.”

The walking works up an appetite. At the conclusion, there’s a farm-to-table lunch (either vegan or with meat) that uses ingredients from the Jacana garden. Curry chickpeas, rice and peas, barbecue chicken, and salad were on the menu when I visited.

After lunch, we moved one table over where Jacana-branded rolling trays, wrapping papers, a grinder, a lighter, and, of course, cannabis were set up at each seat. It’s the part of the tour my companions were most looking forward to. It’s not often one gets to roll and smoke with a local expert while sitting in the middle of a cannabis farm, after all.

Here, we had our spliff rolling class. The word spliff started in Jamaica and has been misconstrued internationally as a mix of cannabis and tobacco, Khalil explained. In Jamaica, it’s the primary consumption method: a long wrapping paper that’s filled with cannabis and rolled into a cone shape with no filter and, importantly, no tobacco.

Photo: Nickolaus Hines

Khalil walked us through each step. Anyone familiar with rolling a joint knows the basics, but it’s best to not get ahead of yourself if you’re new to rolling a traditional Jamaican spliff.

“We like things fresh in Jamaica,” Khalil said when I noted that the flower is much less dry than what I’m used to back home in Colorado. The terpenes are strong with a grassy, floral, citrus aroma as I popped open the grinder filled with newly ground cannabis. Khalil showed how to fill the wrapping paper and arrange it just right to create the classic cone. Shaped, sealed, and twisted at the top, the spliff is quickly ready. Each person smoked their own as we talked with Khalil about life, politics, and cannabis before walking back to the tour provider cars to head back to our respective hotels.

How to see Jacana’s farm for yourself

Photo: Jacana

The Jacana team can be reached for tours directly through the company’s website. Vans take guests to the farm and back. If you’re staying in Ocho Rios, Kingston, or New Kingston, make it a point to visit a Jacana dispensary to learn more about the brand and what tours are on offer.

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