Jawara McIntosh performing at the MassCann Freedom Rally; all photos courtesy of the McIntosh family
Niambe McIntosh remembers her brother Jawara as a "ball of energy." He was the kind of person who would light up a whole room, making an entrance while singing out loud. He was a "happy go lucky" guy, she says. Son of the late reggae singer Peter Tosh, Jawara was a seasoned musician, having been on the road touring his own music. A father of four, ages 6 through 11, he was a devout believer in God, Rastafarianism, and used the sacrament of his faith — cannabis.
Today, Jawara, 37, resides in Boston, but under far different circumstances than his seemingly bright future would have promised. He's now in a coma, being cared for at a local hospital. Prior to his current condition, he was serving time in Bergen County Jail, following a weed bust in Mahwah, New Jersey, in February 2017. Early on in his stay, another inmate attacked him, and left the up-and-coming reggae star with a devastating brain injury.
Jawara McIntosh with his three daughters
In his current state, there's little that Jawara's family can do to salvage his life — but they're still fighting for justice.
Sure, people get beat up in jail all the time. "It happens every day, but should it involve people because of the herb? It seems so brutal and extreme," says Brian Latture, managing representative for the estate of Peter Tosh and his brand. "He sounds so much like his father, it's eerie, but he might not ever be able to sing another note."
It's safe to say Jawara wouldn't have been imprisoned were it not for cannabis prohibition, and not to mention policing tactics that disproportionately target people of color. (According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in New Jersey blacks are three times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana). Had Jawara not imprisoned, another inmate wouldn't have beaten him up. He wouldn't be in a coma, and he'd still be here as the Jawara his family so desperately misses.
"The family definitely wants to take a stand. Peter Tosh was the godfather of the legalization movement; he suffered the same injustice in the Seventies prior to his assassination in '87," says Latture. "All these years have gone by and you would think that the laws would protect people."
Jawara in front of photo of his father, reggae icon Peter Tosh
The family is taking several actions in their pursuit of justice for Jawara: They're using his story to advocate for cannabis legalization on the federal level; they’re supporting New Jersey Senator Cory Booker in his legislative push to pass the Marijuana Justice Act; they're suing Bergen County Jail; they're spreading awareness, such as by sharing Jawara's story at the National Cannabis Festival in Washington D.C. this April; and they're pushing to have Jawara's case dismissed, as Niambe says, "because he's obviously paid the ultimate price for possession of cannabis."
It was Father's Day weekend of 2013, and Jawara's family hadn't heard from him all weekend. "Eventually, we got a call saying he was in jail in New Jersey, that he'd been arrested for possession of marijuana," Niambe recounts. "Articles came out shortly after that, saying that he was driving recklessly, things like that. I spoke to him about it and he said it was racial profiling." He stayed in jail from June until his first hearing in September 2013.
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Jawara with his son
"Initially, they offered him 20 years in prison. Our mouths just dropped," she says. "It was hard, seeing him shackled in that orange suit and the correctional officers being arrogant." Jawara ended up staying incarcerated until December 2013, when he posted bail, and then came to live with Niambe in Boston, as he went back and forth to New Jersey for court. Finally, in December 2016, he accepted a plea deal. He turned himself into jail in the beginning of 2017.
"We were expecting that he would just do the time and get it behind him. It was supposed to be six months that he would be serving," says Niambe. "Then a month or so into the sentence, he was attacked and suffered a severe brain injury. We were in Boston at the time, getting ready to go to Jamaica for Reggae Month for my dad — an event that Jawara's daughter and I... we were going to be performing in Jamaica for the first time. But instead, we just hopped on a plane to go to New Jersey and go to the hospital."
When Jawara's family arrived, they found him with tubes down his throat, and his ankle chained to a hospital bed. "He was in the ICU, handcuffed to a bed," says Niambe. "They said this is protocol." Niambe, along with her and Jawara's mother, their cousin, and Jawara's daughter's mother, went back day after day to visit. And each day, they first had to go through bureaucracy, including getting the sheriff's permission, to merely get through the door to see a hospitalized inmate. "That was just a battle in and of itself," she says, starting to cry. "They said, 'You guys should let the inevitable happen.' But he's a man of faith, he's a believer, a fighter. He's the most energetic, captivating person we know, so we chose to do everything in our power to keep him alive."
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Jawara McIntosh in hospital care after being attacked in Bergen County Jail, New Jersey
They've since transferred him to Boston in May. Niambe says his vitals have gotten a lot better, but he's still incapacitated.
"Right now, we're trying to seek justice for him and help this not happen to any other family," she says. "It's insane; this is all over weed. We had the correctional officers treating us like criminals. Every aspect of this is terrible. It's important that my brother's story is shared to help push the needle on legalization on a national level."
On April 21st, Jawara's family will take his story to the national stage at the National Cannabis Festival, a gathering of up to 12,000 people at Washington D.C.'s RFK Stadium to discuss policy and social justice concerns around the plant, as well as to celebrate progress on cannabis legalization with music (including Cypress Hill), games, and contests.
"There needs to be a better way to police cannabis, and maybe the better way is to not police cannabis at all," says Caroline Phillips, the festival founder and producer. "Jawara was a vibrant young man in the prime of his life, with four children and a burgeoning music career, and for it to get cut short in such a violent way when he was not a violent person, when he was not locked up for a violent crime, is unjust, and he's not alone." Jawara's story brings to light the gross injustice of throwing cannabis "criminals" behind bars with actually violent offenders — people guilty of deliberately hurting other human beings.
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Jawara and Niambe McIntosh holding the Order of Merit, awarded posthumously to their father Peter Tosh by the Jamaican government in 2013
His story also exemplifies the worst consequences of prohibition — harmful effects that could be alleviated with legislation like the Marijuana Justice Act, which aims to end federal cannabis prohibition, cut law enforcement funding for states like New Jersey with racially disproportionate cannabis arrests, establish a $500 million "community reinvestment fund" to repair the damage of the War on Drugs, and allow those convicted of marijuana crimes to clean their records.
"The fact that people [are] wallowing in prison right now, or have lifetime sentences, [or] can't get a Pell Grant or food stamps, for doing things that three of the last four presidents admitted to doing, is a real hypocrisy," says Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), sponsor of the Marijuana Justice Act. "New Jersey is a tale of two states...What this bill actually does is provide process for victims of overzealous and racist enforcement." And that's part of why Jawara's family is working with Booker to push this bill forward. Currently, it's sponsored in both chambers of Congress.
These days, Jawara's family visits him several times a week in the hospital. "The nurses always say they enjoy coming into his room," Niambe says. There's a collage of pictures on the walls of all his family members, his children, and his friends. And Niambe bought a little radio with Bluetooth, so he could always have music playing. "We have Jawara's music playing and my dad's music is often playing," she says. "All the songs, they keep him in there fighting, knowing that we're there in the room with him." Niambe also has friends send voice messages, so Jawara can hear them even if they can't physically visit.
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Jawara's kids, nieces, and nephews make art for the walls, say prayers together for him, and tell him about their day. "I was never one to read the Bible, but he was an avid reader of it. Even my daughter goes through with her cousins to make sure [that] before they leave, they say the prayer he would say with them," says Niambe. "They stay positive in the room, they say, 'Hey, Daddy, I missed you this past weekend, I did this and that,' so that's really cool, even if it's still hard for them, of course. At the end of the day, we have try to push to stay strong, to stay positive, to keep the faith as Jawara would."