By Nyakerario J. Omari
As the world moves towards mainstreaming marijuana, only a handful of African states have made medical marijuana legal.
“God has made over 430 plants and put them on earth, and somebody has come and banned just one. You ask yourself, why? And that one that has the greatest medicinal value of all, that grows on its own, does not need herbicides, does not need fungicides, it just grows.” That is cannabis for Gwada Ogot, a political analyst and researcher how advocates for legalization of marijuana in Kenya.
He is the seeming one man army behind a push to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in Kenya. Standing in his way is Kenya’s Interior Ministry and years of propaganda railing against the plan. So stern is the rejection of this premise that the name of man’s oldest enemy has been invoked.
“I don’t know how much space we have opened in this country for the devil to the extent that we have gotten (sic) there” was Dr. Fred Matiangi’s retort while telling an audience he was addressing about the subject. His remarks were triggered by the Ministry’s receipt of an application by a ‘lunatic’ to open a factory for the processing of medical marijuana.
Lunacy though, no longer seems to be a defense against the rising acknowledgement of the marijuana plants potency for medical use.
On December 2, 2020, the United Nations Commission for Narcotic Drugs voted to remove cannabis and cannabis related substances for medical purposes from schedule IV of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, a category considered to be of the most dangerous drugs. The commission, which has 53 member states and is based in Vienna, Austria, made this decision in a year where the world’s focus was on the global COVID-19 pandemic, but the decision was nonetheless very significant. Kenya is among 11 African states that are members of this commission, and voted against the motion. Only one African state, South Africa, voted to amend the schedule reclassifying cannabis.
Kenya’s reasons for voting against the motion have not yet been published by the commission, so it is difficult to determine whether Kenya’s vote was based on science or suspicion. From Matiangi’s comments, it doesn’t seem too hard to read the tea leaves on the attitudes of decision makers in his ministry, whose mandate covers regulation and scheduling of the drugs that can be used in Kenya.
Some in the country don’t share Matiangi’s view.
How does Cannabis make you high?
Cannabis refers to a group of plants with psychoactive components. These are: cannabis sativa, cannabis Indica and hybrids. Cannabis sativa, identified by its height has a higher concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Cannabis Indica on the other side grows shorter in height than sativa and is high in cannabidiol (CBD). Once in the body, both THC and CBD react differently with the endocannabinoid system which comprises of the cannabinoid receptors in the brain.
According to the Healthline, THC which is the psychoactive component is known to give a feeling of highness. CBD, with a less psychoactive component is known to elicit a feeling of calmness, focus and also tends to make its users to feel motivated. Hybrid cannabis is achieved from combining both Indica and sativa.
In the most recent episode of Africa Uncensored’s Uncensored Mtaani, Producer Elijah Kanyi spoke to Dr. Primus Ochieng, an oncologist and lecturer at the University of Nairobi and advocate for the legalization of medical marijuana in Kenya.
“It actually controls pain (in cancer patients). It also controls mood issues.” He said. He added that patients under cancer treatment tend to develop anxiety related issues, which medical marijuana seems to help relieve.
“Some patients even stopped taking chemotherapy on belief that there were testimonies that medical marijuana actually cures cancer.” He further states.
Research by Harvard Medical School shows that patients who use strains high in CBD have reported benefits from relieving insomnia, anxiety, spasticity and pain to treating potentially life-threatening conditions such as epilepsy. With its little or no THC compound, patients report very little alteration in consciousness, adding to the robust discussion around medical marijuana being its benefits in cancer treatment.
The US Cancer Society lists Dronabinol (Marinol®) and Nabilone (Cesamet®) as drugs approved in the US for medical use. Both are beneficial in treating nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy. Nabiximol which is under study helps with the pain linked to cancer, muscle spasms and multiple sclerosis. It has a mix of 1:1 of both cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
In 2017, Lesotho became the first African country to legalize cultivation of marijuana for industrial and scientific use with Uganda and Rwanda being the most recent African countries to legalize cultivation of marijuana for export purposes just a year ago.
In Uganda, the Narcotic Drugs and substances Act 2015 allows cultivation, production and exportation of medicinal marijuana and mandates the Minister of health to issue a written consent for medical marijuana. In both countries, marijuana consumption remains a crime punishable by law.
Blaze Bakama, a Ugandan radio host has used marijuana for over 22 years now.
Speaking to Africa Uncensored, he admits that, “the society has sold the narrative that marijuana is so bad, it is responsible for almost every bad thing people do.” He says. “At no point has marijuana influenced me to do bad. I want to change the narrative.”
To get a license to grow marijuana in Uganda, an investor is required to present a minimum capital of USD 5 million and a bank guarantee of just over USD 1.1 million.
This for a local farmer who desires to venture into cultivation of medical marijuana seems too much money to raise. But for foreign investors with the capital and a bit of influence, a license for them comes easy which answers why the market in Uganda has been dominated by such investors.
In 2020-2021 financial report, , Uganda Revenue Authority states that the agricultural sector contributes close to 23.8% of the Gross Domestic Product with 72% of the population employed in this sector. The agricultural sector also contributes to 50% of Uganda’s export market. Unfortunately, the drawback is that, this sector only contributes 1% of the annual revenue collections, mostly because a majority of the 72% employed in agriculture do it for subsistence; so without a market approach that considers the subsistence farmer, marijuana will become yet another rich man’s cash crop in Uganda, its broad health benefits be damned.
Blaze has not needed to use marijuana for any major health conditions. However, he strongly advocates for medical marijuana, called njaaye in his native language. He does recommend its use to his followers both on radio and his social media platforms.
On the African continent, Zambia, Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe are the only countries that have legalized medical marijuana. South Africa and Zimbabwe have however, relaxed laws on marijuana use.
In The Netherlands, marijuana is illegal but decriminalized for possession of fewer than 5 grams. Possession is considered illegal but coffee shops rely on a tolerance policy , and are allowed to sell marijuana. This policy allows these coffee shops to have not more than 500g of marijuana at one particular time. This can be confusing. Decriminalization of cannabis therefore means cannabis remains illegal, however, a user who possesses the required amount is considered to be on the safe side of the law.
In Kenya, the debate was started by the late MP Kibra, Ken Okoth who succumbed to colorectal cancer in 2019. He passionately advocated the legalization of medical marijuana. A Marijuana Control Bill 2018 which he tabled in parliament still receives massive support from parliamentarians and pro-legalisation researchers alike.
Ledama Ole Kina, a Senator in Kenya’s parliament seems to be the heir apparent of this charge to change the laws in Kenya. He has taken to twitter on several occasions to criticize the countries laws on marijuana, but has yet to turn his opinions into a legislative move change the laws in Kenya.
The law against possession, cultivation and use of marijuana still remains illegal, punishable by law.
A proposed amendment bill on Narcotic drugs & Psychotropic substances, tabled in 2020 seeks to set strict penalties on possession of this drug. Possession of marijuana between 51-100 grams will see suspects fined not less than Ksh30 million and a jail term of 20 years. Anything above 101 grams attracts a penalty of Ksh50 million and life imprisonment.
The amendments to this law were made as recently as 2020, meaning that, the law in Kenya is getting further away and not closer to either decriminalization or legalization of marijuana for medical use. Across the continent too, there are many hills left to climb, and few with the stamina to endure the journey.