Kaya is no ordinary, sterile-looking, pharmacy-inspired dispensary, it is a destination. The Herb House comes complete with a dab bar, pizza place, full alcohol and coffee bar, consumption lounge, accessories and clothing shop.
Incidentally, the CJO “Chief Ganja Officer” of the dispensary chain, Jamaican-born Balram “Bali” Vaswani, 43, is also the CEO of Rohan Marley’s heritage Blue Mountain coffee brand, Marley Coffee.
With members of Jamaica’s first family in Vaswani’s corner, along with cannabis industry veteran, Lorne Gertner, the future is looking upbeat for the Herb Houses.
Gertner, founder of Canadian mainstays Tokyo Smoke and ByMinistry, is one of Kaya’s investors. Gertner’s mission is to “improve the world through cannabis and design excellence.” He is globally-renowned for his acumen and foresight for pioneering highly influential companies.
As a person with a similar vision, Vaswani’s company, Ganja Labs, produced the first legal harvest of refined Jamaican herb. He now operates a chain of three successful Kaya Herb House medical cannabis dispensaries. In March 2018, Kaya opened in Drax Hall, St. Ann, followed by its second opening in Falmouth.
The third location in Kingston’s “Golden Triangle” of tourism which includes Devon House and the Bob Marley museum, opened last Thursday to much fanfare. The grand opening featured a performance by Rohan’s brother KyMani Marley and an art instillation by Jude Issa, featuring creative portraits of dancehall legends Spice, and Vybz Kartel.
The property features a wooden deck and veranda built around an enormous tree that is the perfect selfie spot, with nearby tables for consuming pizza and other snacks. More of an entertainment complex than merely a dispensary, it has quickly become a tourist and local hot spot.
The shop sells t-shirts and toiletries such as hemp soap and deodorant, which are necessities in the 85° heat on typically sunny days.
As for the herb itself, Kaya is vertically integrated, with a 5,000-square-foot greenhouse, cultivating 2.5 meters-high trees. The quality of the strains were put to the test at this past weekend’s Jamaican Ganja Cup in Negril. Local farmer Wabba took first place, scoring 92 out of 100 points. Kaya’s Sting A Ling came in second by a hairsbreadth, scoring 91.80 and its Kurple came in third with 90.75. with a “variable of Irieness,” Vaswani says, good naturedly. “It is all good. I am happy Wabba and a Negril farmer won.”
True to the spirit of brotherly love, Vaswani envisions Kaya carrying strains from every part of the island. He nostalgically remembers the heyday of Jamaican herb, famous for the Lamb’s Bread strain beloved by Bob Marley.
“That’s really when Jamaica was kicking,” Vaswani says. “We had great strains in the Seventies.”
Since then, Jamaican ganja has waned on the world stage: diluted by outside seeds imported from overseas – and victimized.
The U.S. government threatened to hold up the tiny, developing world country’s desperately-needed World Bank loan, if Jamaica didn’t stop the flow of illicit cannabis exports. Subsequently, the War on Drugs and burning of ganja fields quickly ensued.
However, in what was clearly a losing battle for Jamaica not be reputed for its cannabis, the Jamaican government decriminalized it first, then eventually legalized medical marijuana.
Vaswani’s longtime friend Rohan Marley acknowledges he restored the reputation of Jamaican-grown ganja. “You can taste the soil, the pineapple and the sweetness, says Marley. “Bali brought the standard way up.”
While an employee of local radio station IRIE FM notes that consuming cannabis is still stigmatized among older, working class Jamaicans, hopefully their minds will open alongside Kaya’s groundbreaking and stigma-shattering enterprise.
Vaswani plans to expand the dispensary chain and wellness platform across the Caribbean with outposts in Cayman, St. Vincent, and Trinidad in 2020.