ALFIO “FYARED” BARONE IS A 29-year-old music engineer, cannabis personality, and ganja cultivator and activist working to change the legal status of cannabis in the US Virgin Islands. After spending time in the United States working, breeding and growing with THSeeds USA, Alfio has returned to the Virgin Islands to continue to advance his crusade for medical cannabis legislation on the island working with USVI NORML and his own organization, The Healing Council (THC).
We caught up with Alfio between meetings with political representatives and community stakeholders to chat about the past, present, and future of cannabis in the US Virgin Islands.
SKUNK MAGAZINE: You were saying ganja has a history in the Virgin Islands similar to the rest of the Carribean—is that the proper term in VI like the rest of the carribean? Ganja?
ALFIO “FYARED” BARONE: Yes—we say ganja or herb, or now when we are speaking with more proper people, Cannabis—but we avoid the term marijuana because it’s a racist term with a history of exploitation. But as for ganja in the Virgin Islands—yes, from what I know, it was brought to the islands by indentured servants from India with the British in the 19th century.
SKUNK: That makes sense—in India, herb is called gaddja—supposedly that’s where the word ganja comes from, so whenever you see a place where that’s the local term, it’s usually a good sign that’s who brought herb to the region.
ALFIO: For sure—the East Indian influence is in a lot of the culture in the Caribbean—even in the cooking. In Trinidad they eat roti—that’s a traditional East Indian dish that became a traditional West Indian dish. In a way, the same thing happened at the same time with ganja.
SKUNK: How common or prolific is the ganja trade in the Virgin Islands? More so than in the US?
ALFIO: About ten-percent of the population makes their living growing or selling herb—though it’s not legal or regulated, it’s a big part of the economy. It’s one of the few industries that brings money onto the island to stay—whether it’s tourists on vacation buying herb, or ganja getting exported—that’s foreign wealth that goes into circulation on the island. So it’s not just someone sells a bunch of ganja and then sends the money back where it came from—they buy some food at a restaurant owner, then the restaurant owner uses the money to buy fish from a fisherman and on and on. The positive effect on the economy goes deeper than the ganja trade itself.
SKUNK: You mentioned you saw a lot of very large scale cultivation during your time in Colorado. That surprised me a little, because I think a lot of us picture the ganja fields in the islands as these jungles of Cannabis—is that a bit of fantasy on our part?
ALFIO: Probably a bit. [laughs] You know—most outdoor patches are a few hundred plants on the island. Here and there is a very large farm with a few thousand plants, but those are not at all the average. One of the most impressive things in the States was the large scale indoor cultivation—a lot of farmers in the islands have had to move to growing indoors to hide the crops [from eradication helicopters], but those are small setups—nothing like the big warehouses with hundreds of lights you guys have.
SKUNK: That’s interesting how US intervention has sort-of influenced the traditional cultivation methods by moving things indoors. What about other external influences changing the growing method or philosophy?
ALFIO: There’s definitely been a shift. First, in genetics—a major shift from pure Sativas to Indicas and hybrids. Especially over the past five years, there’s been a huge shift in fertilization techniques—a lot more people use bottled nutrients because they read the magazines or see them online. It’s a little sad—we can source so many of the common organic nutrients right here—guanos, earthworm castings, kelp, fish emulsions and things. The traditional farming of all the crops in the region uses these sorts of things. So it’s almost backwards—in the US, there’s a movement to grow organic with all these fertilizers from the Caribbean, and in the Caribbean, so many growers are importing the bottled nutrients from the US.
SKUNK: I guess as the saying goes, “the grass is always greener on the other side.”
ALFIO: [laughs] Exactly.
SKUNK: So as far as genetics, are most people growing strains bred on the island, or is the variety more international?
ALFIO: Definitely international—one of the most popular strains is DNA [Genetics]’s Cataract Kush. In a way, it’s almost an island strain by now—it’s a little different from when it first arrived here—it’s been growing for so many [plant] generations that it’s adapted to the tropical climate and started to grow more like a Sativa. But that’s the trade-off—we have more variety, but less of the pure Sativas that evolved here over the last centuries.
SKUNK: Speaking of the history of ganja on the island, it sounds like the idea of medical Cannabis or medicinal ganja is nothing new in the Caribbean?
ALFIO: No—very old in fact. Herb has been used as medicine since it first arrived on the island—parents give it to sick children all the time—usually in the form of tea. It’s used for many common conditions: asthma, loss of appetite, menstrual cramps, nausea, migraines, general detoxification… It’s probably the most commonly used herbal medicine we have.
SKUNK: So from that background, what’s the current status of medical Cannabis on the island? Is it more accepted because of the traditional history of use?
ALFIO: As of this moment, the medicinal use of Cannabis is still illegal in the Virgin Islands, but we are changing that. As of a few days ago [July 28, 2014], our senate has voted to pass bill 30-0422, so the legalization of medicinal Cannabis will be on the ballot for a public vote this November. I wish I could say this was easier thanks to the traditional use, but it has been a long struggle—I’ve spent many years lobbying our senators, and more than 18 months building support for this specific bill.
So on the one hand, it’s been a very long road, but when I compare that to the medical Cannabis movement in places like California and Colorado, I can see that we may have found some acceptance more easily. We have a very popular political supporter in Senator Terrence “Positive” Nelson of the Independent Citizen Movement, who was willing to sponsor and champion this bill. The senate vote came by public referendum—so we know the citizens support reform—and the senate vote itself was very supportive: twelve voted in favor, and only two against [with one abstaining].
SKUNK: With that kind of support, it sounds like change is not only inevitable, but underway. With that in mind, what are your hopes for the future of ganja in the Virgin Islands?
ALFIO: I think we can become a healing destination for Americans and people around the world. I think we’ll see benefits in the Virgin Islands very quickly—not just economically from an open ganja trade, but in the overall health of the citizens, and in the reduction in petty crime that goes hand in hand with the refocusing of police resources.
SKUNK: Of course, with all the promising momentum, there’s still a road ahead to the legalization of Cannabis for medical use, and then ultimately completely outright legalization. What are some things people could do to help progress the efforts down in the Virgin Islands?
ALFIO: The first thing is just to raise awareness—to shine the spotlight on our little island with pieces like this article. Once the government gets the sense that there are people from outside the island who are interested in coming here specifically for medical Cannabis, it will definitely impact their bottom line. speaking of bottom lines, any movement like ours can use financial support. We are very grassroots here—so our educational efforts and our propaganda campaigns or what have you are very word-of-mouth, or person-to-person.
We’re aiming to get funding to help us get the message out and combat many of the old myths surrounding ganja that were exported to the Caribbean by the DEA and other prohibition forces. Also just having well-known activists from the US and elsewhere come to speak and educate activists and citizens on the island—the more support and participation we can get from the broader community, the more strength we have to continue pushing forward.