“Every day, all day,” is the response Philliciano “Foxy” Callwood gives these days when you ask him how often he smokes ganja. Lordlike, he perches on his chair overlooking idyllic Jost van Dyke, British Virgin Islands, his gray hair stubbornly sticking up on all sides. “I used to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day,” says Callwood when I arrive to interview him in mid-June.“Now I quit smoking cigarettes, but I’m not going to quit smoking a good joint.” He explains that he suffers from a variety of ailments that he medicates with cannabis, and happily admits he’s been doing it since the early sixties–and at one point did quite a bit more.
“It was too expensive,” he says. “So I came here on this island…and decided to try my hand. I grew a few trees,” he says. He claims government “spies” were his undoing. “The police came down and went to my house and found a six-foot tree growing and they took me out and took me to jail. Yeah! I spent overnight in jail for growing a six-foot tree.”
He got off with a fine and stayed out of trouble for the next fifty years–not an easy task in a territory that, up until 2003, boasted the infamous “Rasta Law,” which banned “hippies” and those with dreadlocked hairstyles from crossing its borders. Now, though, seemingly everyone here is spurred on by economic necessity and developments in the wider Caribbean region. People have begin to reevaluate their traditionally hardline anti-cannabis stance — and nobody more than Callwood himself. On July 7, he’s hosting Foxy’s Hemp Fest, a one-day blowout aimed at turning tiny BVI into the world’s next great weed mecca.
“Most people don’t know that Foxy’s a huge stoner,” says Tom Warner.
There is perhaps nobody in the Caribbean better position than Callwood to host this event. Look at any BVI Tourist Board ad, and you’ll likely see Callwood’s inimitable grin somewhere on it, clutching his guitar and sporting his trademark bare feet, embodying the simple, carefree island lifestyle tourists plan months in advance in order to experience. A longtime pal of country singer and island mainstay Kenny Chesney, he’s arguably the most famous face to ever come out of the BVI. And yet “most people don’t know that Foxy’s a huge stoner,” says Tom Warner, Foxy’s general manager and media point man for the festival. “You’ll read hysterical TripAdvisor reviews saying how Foxy wouldn’t approve of people getting high on his property. We just laugh.”
Callwood holds court most days from a chair at Foxy’s Tamarind Bar, his beachside rum emporium in Great Harbour, which this year celebrated its 50th anniversary of providing a safe space for rich tourists on charter yachts to engage in every vice imaginable. A contradiction in terms — he proudly began sporting a MAGA hat during the current US president’s ascendancy — Callwood actually dressed up and put on shoes to get knighted in London in 2009 (for his everlasting effort to make life better for BVIers), but otherwise rarely leaves his island. He may occasionally play the fool, but he’s a shrewd businessman, acutely aware of his vital role in turning what had been a sleepy fishing-and-farming based economy into the yachting capital of the Caribbean—and that there’s no reason he can’t do the same for cannabis. But given the fact that weed is still 100 percent illegal in the BVI, the public may take some more convincing.
“I expect some pushback,” says Warner, adding that he and Callwood hatched the idea after kicking in to aid the family of a local man who spent 14 months in prison for possession of less than an ounce. “In a small community like this, when you’re a man down, you really feel it.” He adds, “There are people who think this is the first step down a wrong road. It’s one of the biggest reasons for the education aspect of this event. We wanted to make it more structured than just a bunch of Rastas under the trees getting high all afternoon.”
The keynote speaker is Terrence “Positive” Nelson, a senator from neighboring USVI who spearheaded the decriminalization movement in that territory, and Sowande Uhuru, leader of the opposition Virgin Islands Party. They’ll be backed up by a roster of socially active musicians from the US and BVI, and homegrown companies as interested in jerky, sodas, and soaps as they are in hemp milk and scooby snacks.
Despite what will be on offer, Warner says he expects minimal police presence, especially when compared to Foxy’s New Year’s party, which regularly draws thousands of stumbling revelers. “Marijuana festivals are pretty mellow,” says Warner. “Any arrests for violence? No. Somebody fell asleep on a bench? Yes.”’ Plus, he says, “There isn’t a police officer [in the BVI] who doesn’t believe in the decriminalization of marijuana.”
The timing is apt. Even though Babylon has been cracking down — legally, occasionally violently — on Rastafarians since the 1930s, the region appears to be in the midst of a ganja revolution. In 2015, Jamaica finally decriminalized the possession of under 2 ounces, and so has the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands. This year, on 420, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne issued an unprecedented formal apology to the Rastafarian community, acknowledging that anti-cannabis laws had caused them to be “brutalized and castigated” by police. (According to Warner, a key activist in that decision is scheduled to attend Foxy’s Hemp Fest). In June, Director of the Caribbean Drug and Alcohol Research Institute (CDARI), Dr. Marcus Day, told the St. Lucia Times that the criminalization of cannabis was “absurd.” Medical marijuana now appears to be the on the horizon for dozens of Caribbean countries, and it’s not just Callwood and Warner who believe the BVI could be next. The premier, deputy premier and minister of education all have, with varying levels of vagueness, expressed openness to the concept. Why the sea change?
For one, in case you haven’t heard, weed is big business. The US legal cannabis industry is set to rake in $21 billion by 2021— and the island nations of the Caribbean, whose economies tend to be lopsidedly reliant on tourism and financial services, wouldn’t mind a piece of that green. The BVI, in particular, was hit with a one-two punch—in September 2017, 80 percent of its infrastructure was damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Irma, and its parent country, the United Kingdom, is now mandating that overseas territories implement public registers of company ownership, potentially blowing up the islands’ tax haven status. It’s no wonder BVIslanders are scrambling to find creative ways to make up the difference. (It’s as Peter Tosh said in 1976: “Legalize it, and I will advertise it.”)
Plus, says Warner, weed prevents an opportunity for the territory to differentiate itself from the St. Barths of the world. With increased upscale tourism, he said, “I think we risk turning into a rich person’s haven,” he says, “and losing the uniqueness that makes the BVI what it is. [But] I think if you had a regulatory environment where grow sites were licensed, dispensaries were licensed, distributors were licensed, the users were licensed, then you’re okay. I think visitors would buy them at the airport if you make the card look cool.”
Of course, he also knows that the pace of BVI government gives a whole new meaning to “island time.” There’s also an entire generation of old-school, churchgoing Virgin Islanders to get on board. “I will have felt I have succeeded if it is decriminalized from a felony to a misdemeanor,” says Warner. “Where they class it and what the fines are doesn’t even matter.”
Meanwhile, down at Foxy’s, another tourist has asked Callwood to play a song, and he hoists his guitar as if someone has put a nickel in him. But first, he has a point to make. “I firmly believe that everybody who says, marijuana doing this, marijuana doing that — they’re full of shit,” he says. “Because it’s the alcohol. These guys I met when I come up, and they were into the bottle. They loved it. And the alcohol took them down. And as much as I smoke, they’re dead, and I’m still here.” He pauses to let loose a gleeful cackle. “And the government and all them men telling me how bad marijuana is and they give me a license to sell rum. And all men who I sell rum to; they all smoking; I’m still alive,” he says with a mischievous gleam in his eye. “It’s time to legalize it.”