Will Africa legalise marijuana or are we just getting ‘high’?

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Lanji Ouko

Who would have imagined, a few years ago, how rapidly the cultivation and use of marijuana would rise across Africa? The US set the ball rolling when it spearheaded the legalisation of the herb in a number of states. Over a decade later, African states have gradually succumbed to the pressure and began to table the possibility of legalising it as well, not only for medicinal use but economic benefits as well.

According to the 2009 report by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) the “highest levels of cannabis production in the world take place on the African continent.” The UNODC’s “World Drug Report 2015” estimated Africa’s rate of annual Marijuana consumption by people aged 15-64 at 7.5 per cent, almost double the global average of 3.9pc. Africa’s continental rate is third behind Oceania at 10.7pc and North America at 11.6 percent.

UNODC’s “Cannabis in Africa” report shows Lesotho produces 70pc of the Marijuana that enters South Africa and is currently the country’s third largest source of income.

Mozambique in 2011 a recorded 900pc increase in seized marijuana, compared to 2010; it continues to gradually rise. The Nigerian National Drug Law Enforcement Agency reported in 2014, that a large number of Nigerian farmers had abandoned cultivating food and cash crops to concentrate on marijuana; it arrested over 8,000 marijuana farmers.

Useful cannabis found in marijuana is reported to treat ailments. The medical marijuana revolution dates back to ancient Egypt, 1550 BCE, where it was used to treat Glaucoma, enema and inflammation. Additionally, in ancient India it was used to treat insomnia, headaches and labor pains. The ancient Greeks used cannabis for tapeworms, nosebleeds and ear infections.

Governments throughout Africa oppose the legislation of Marijuana because the approach runs counter to public health approaches of drug policy. Legalising the drug would increase its availability, leading to a significant strain on our health systems. Over the years, global proponents of medical cannabis have used the CBD and THC to treat a number of illnesses such as Hepaptitis C, HIV/Aids, cancer, Parkinson’s, arthritis, epilepsy, glaucoma and even insomnia. Voluminous research confirms the benefits of the treatment in managing pain, nausea and vomiting, particularly when caused by chemotherapy in cancer patients.

However, despite all the advantages of smoking marijuana, the fact remains that it is addictive, causes respiratory diseases, cognitive impairment, diminishes motivation, causes anxiety disorders, cancer of the lungs and mouth and it can bring schizophrenia to those predisposed to it.

What then would it take for a government to legalize the medicinal Marijuana? Documented proof? Clinical trials of large patient populations? Questions would rise on the dosage information. How about the long-term impacts on patients? Practice guidelines? Does our economy have these resources?

The Medical Innovation Bill 2014, a bill to legalise Cannabis in South Africa for medical, economic and industrial purposes, was tabled in Parliament. The Bill was submitted by Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, a member of the South African Parliament from the Inkatha Freedom Party; he later passed on. The Bill intended to seek provision for innovations in medical treatments by legalising the use of marijuana for medical, economic and industrial purposes. The MP, had been diagnosed with stage four, inoperable lung cancer.

The Democratic Alliance party supported the medical-only bill, but the health minister, in his opposition, said “the current bill is over-reaching. Leave emotion aside and consider the bill rationally.”

The South African Medical Research Council also weighed in on the bill, saying that “the issue of medical cannabis should be separated from legalisation of cannabis.”

Just like the political effects of politicians tabling debates on abortion or same-sex marriage, the legalisation of marijuana is a sensitive topic. African politicians are unwilling to go whole hog when it comes to the debate of legalising marijuana while others choose to be the more vocal proponents of legalising it for medical uses. In order to ensure political support, a few go further to discuss broadly the need for drug policy reform and how it would improve seller accountability.

Additionally, if marijuana were legalised, drug enforcement agencies and administration would lose a lot of their clout and legitimacy. The law enforcement agencies that don’t want to relinquish any of their powers and control fear such a possibility. If you round up the position of political parties on drug policies, a lot of vested interest is evident and no doubt the issue of decriminalisation will be more prevalent over time with political parties including marijuana in their manifestos as seen across the United States of America.

“Allowing doctors to provide relief to patients through the use of appropriately regulated and dispensed medical marijuana is the compassionate and right policy for the State of New Hampshire, and this legislation ensures that we approach this policy in the right way with measures to prevent abuse” said New Hampshire governor Maggie Hassan in 2013, on the decision to legalise medical marijuana.

On the other hand, a number of politicians fear that their incremental support for the herb may cost them their seats because their conservative supporters may not tolerate the debate on legalisation. To begin with, they argue that by legalising the drug, it erodes the rule of law especially because the government will have no effective manner of enforcing its drugs laws.

Earlier this year, Gary Johnson announced he would be running for US president. Johnson, in 2012, an advocate for the legalisation of marijuana, would later say: “I understand that the entire basis of his campaign cannot be rooted in securing votes from the ‘stoner nation’ because the average pothead does not turn up at the polls.

“When you go back four years ago when I was running for president on the Republican side,” Johnson explained, “I made the statement that if everyone that smoked marijuana gave me a dollar, I’d have $150 million dollars in my coffer. None of that happened. It is a big zero when it comes to the ballot box. Is it the right thing to be advocating? Absolutely. But does it result in political benefits? I haven’t seen it.”

Kenyans were stunned when first time MP of Kibra Constituency Ken Okoth, appearing on Citizen TV’s Opinion Court, urged lawmakers to legalise marijuana and implement effective and responsible policies to facilitate its regulation.

“Let us emancipate ourselves from mental slavery and start planting marijuana, legalise and tax it. We should replace sugarcane with medical marijuana, which has a ready market in the USA”, he said.

In Kenya, marijuana is illegal under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Control Act No.4 of 1994.

Citing Kenya’s rich and favourable growing conditions – rich volcanic soils and adequate rainfall – idealistic marijuana advocates continue to debate on the decriminalisation of marijuana, going against the argument by the National Authority on the Campaign Against Drug Abuse (Nacada) chair John Mututho that the reason marijuana is legal in the US and Western countries is because the medical schemes and health care systems there are advanced and have more effective rehabilitation centres to deal with the consequences of drug abuse.

According to the Kibra MP, by legalizing the herb, it reduces the actual problems associated with its being illicit because many believe the problems based on marijuana is in fact a consequence of its prohibition. In support of his sentiments, nations with strong systems of control, law enforcement agencies and monitoring and regulation of drugs are able to sustain and manage its legalization better than Kenya, where it is illegal.

Oscar Mwangale, a pharmacist based in Westlands, weighs in: “Our situation is one of near hopelessness; damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. The medicinal aspect of marijuana is the sole reason lawmakers universally are at crossroads over the illegal herb.”

At the end of the day, drug policy should be based only on science and data and not on political agendas. Despite the stigma of using illegal drugs for medicinal purposes, is it possible for Africa to integrate the use of marijuana into its health system?

The phenomenon of African nations coming out to speak on the possibility of legalising marijuana speaks to a growing need to debate the issue; however, political party lines and cultural attitudes influence the views. Of course, Africa is at the grass root level of these debates. What we must begin to consider is what risks are involved once politicians begin to lobby legislation and influence voters, most of who would expressly depend on the herb, were it to be legalised?

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