April 11, 2020

Marijuana Legalization in Nigeria: Much ado about nothing

  A file photo of NDLEA officials raiding a marijuana farm

By Temisan Amoye,

Marijuana, weed, skunk or Igbo as it is popularly referred to in Nigeria, despite its illegality and vilification has found a way to warm itself into the hearts of Nigerians.

A 2018 report by the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) revealed Marijuana to be the most consumed “drug” in Nigeria, being consumed by an estimated 10.8% of the population, which roughly translates to 10.6 million Nigerians.

What’s the fuss about Marijuana?

Marijuana is a flowering plant, once indigenous to Central Asia, whose buds contain over 480 compounds and cannabinoids, among which is Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC as it is popularly called, the primary psychoactive constituent, which produces the stoned or high effects responsible for the plant’s infamous, notorious and misconceived reputation.

That one single constituent is responsible for the “banned” status of the plant in many countries globally. For reasons ranging from political, racial and sheer ignorance and least of all health, the benefits of THC, CBD and other compounds have been ignored and the naturally-occurring Marijuana plant has been termed a dangerous “drug”.

Sometimes, I wonder why a natural plant gets the same classification as drugs made in “labs” with dangerous chemicals. At the end of the day, legality is a human construct. A couple of votes and signatures by flawed men will turn the most abominable act into a celebration of freedom of expression.

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For all the talk of Marijuana being dangerous to the health, alcohol, and tobacco have been legal for decades, with both being known causes of diseases ranging from lung cancer to kidney diseases. I mean it’s written in black and white on every cigarette pack produced, “Smokers are liable to die young”.

Not one soul has been recorded to die from a Marijuana overdose. What an anomaly considering the number of those who have passed on from using opioid, heroin, crack, cocaine and even alcohol overdose. According to the CDC, the US recorded 47,000 opioids ( heroin, codeine, prescription pills) overdose deaths in 2018.

Good luck finding something on marijuana-fuelled rage. And for all the talk of Marijuana causing lung cancer, no research has found conclusive links between both.

Going back to the 19th century in 1840, the British colonial empire banned marijuana use in Mauritius, in 1870 it did the same in Singapore, due to its so-called effects on indentured Indian labourers who were its main users. Let’s be honest, “high men” are of no use for heavy slave labour.

Nigeria being a part of the british empire would go on to pass the 1935 Dangerous Drugs Act criminalizing cultivation and consumption.

Criminalisation in America also showed racial undertones, where its use, primarily associated with Mexican migrant workers, who christened the plant Marijuana, and African-Americans were exploited by politicians to scare white voters. The success of the scaremongering would see California go on to ban the use of the plant in 1913, with several states following suit.

Harry Anslinger a former head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, whose racial and cultural prejudice was public knowledge, pushed for the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 despite the objection of the American Medical Association. He would go on to successfully lobby for the inclusion of Marijuana in the International Drug Cartel Treaties, effectively making the plant widely illegal.

It is worthy to note that while Marijuana was illegal in the US, Jim Crow and segregation were legal. African-Americans weren’t allowed to vote. Moves to establish black rights and civil liberties were brutally cracked down on.

I like to believe Marijuana would have been termed a “wonder plant” had its use been initially widespread among whites. But in an era of slavery, racial discrimination and prejudice, what chance did a “drug” mainly used by Indians, Mexicans and Blacks stand?

Back home, according to the NDLEA Act of 1989, marijuana cultivation carries a possible life sentence, while usage carries a 15-25 year prison sentence.

In an era where countries like England, the United States, Canada, Spain, South Africa, Ghana and even the “holy land” of Israel have decriminalised it for medicinal, recreational and private use. That punishment seems ways too overboard, I mean some of those countries shaped our Marijuana laws and narratives in Nigeria.

Despite the harsh and severe punishment, Marijuana use in Nigeria is widespread, From the North to the Delta, where you have the famed Kwale weed. With the UNODC ranking Nigeria third in worldwide usage, just behind Iceland and the United States.

There are well-known places where marijuana is “openly” sold ranging from N50 – N2000 naira a “bag”. It is also no secret that some law enforcement officials that have been mandated by law to carry out the war on drugs have decided to tap into the lucrative world of marijuana, by offering protection for dealers, extorting dealers and users.

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They have also turned the fight against drugs into a cover for a lucrative extortion scheme, where individuals are harassed under the guise of the illegal ‘stop and search’. Court officials are not left out of the racket, who in connivance with security officials, extort those found wanting. And those who cannot afford to bail themselves are lost to the Nigerian Correctional Services.

With ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo going on to say in an interview on decriminalising drugs ” I was in prison as a  political prisoner, i interacted with these people, some of them just for being caught with a wrap of marijuana and they are put in jail “. And that same trend exists till this day.

Imagine losing your freedom and rights for what your contemporaries in other climes are legally and medically using and making money off.

By now it should be clear and obvious that we are fighting a failing war on drugs. The consumer readily has access to the product, the dealers are cashing out due to high demand, officials are getting “sorted” by the side. Everyone seems to be “winning” except the federal government who keeps funding a futile effort.

Recently, the Nigerian House of Representatives charged the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA to be alive to its responsibilities, in the face of the skyrocketing number of real hard drug users in the country.

There’s only one way to win the ‘war’ against Marijuana, legalize it. Ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo in his capacity as the Chairman of the West Africa Drugs Commission and a signatory to a report on drug policy by the Global Commission on Drug Policy called for the decriminalisation of marijuana amongst others.

The report said that the current method of stigmatising drugs is a stumbling block to effective policy-making that will help combat the scourge of hard drugs. It stated that emphasis should be on ‘harm reduction’ rather than criminalisation and incarceration.

Well, the Global Commission on Drug Policy is a panel of world leaders and intellectuals comprising of former presidents and envoys. Some of its members include Sir Richard Branson, ex-presidents Cesar Gaviria and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Nick Clegg ex-UK Deputy PM and our very own Baba Iyabo. These are leaders with real experience from setting policies to prosecuting bloody anti-drug campaigns.

Nigeria stands to reap multiple benefits should she legalize this versatile plant. Benefits ranging from economic to medical. And by now, the notion of marijuana being responsible for mental issues and poor social behaviour should be dispelled.

A quick search on the internet will show contrary to marijuana causing you issues with your mental health, it has been discovered to help treat anxiety, PTSD, depression and other mental health issues, leading to countries such as England, Israel legalising for medical use. Thirty-three states in the US have legalised marijuana for medical use.

Marijuana Legalization, Nigeria

Epidiolex, a CBD-based drug approved by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to treat seizures associated with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy in patients 2 years and above. Photo: Benzinga

I could write about how Marijuana has been effective in treating a wide range of medical issues like chronic pain, cancer, side effects of chemotherapy, epilepsy, glaucoma, but seasoned professionals with better knowledge have already written papers on its medical benefits, available to anyone seeking.

But as one who resides in Lagos, having to contend with traffic, dodgy security officials, street boys amidst others, I was attracted to a Washington State University study which revealed that marijuana helps combat stress and anxiety, issues most Lagosians can relate to. The study also found out that women perceived a greater reduction in stress and anxiety than men did.

Once during a discussion with peers, it was discovered that some of our mothers resorted to using highly addictive benzodiazepine and opioid-based stress relievers to cope after a stressful day of work and home management. I wonder, wouldn’t a less addictive THC or CBD based pill, or marijuana tea be a much safer option?

I imagine a couple of readers quietly acknowledge seeing Valium or Lexotan somewhere in mama’s bag.

There’s the local misconceived notion that consumption can cause madness in an individual (heard too much of that as a kid), if there was any truth in that, half of Nigeria’s youth would be straddling the corridors of Yaba Left, that’s how prevalent its use is among the Nigerian youth, considering the average age of initiation into cannabis use in Nigeria is 19 years old.

Marijuana also does not induce aggressive behaviour in users, as suggested by a couple of Nigerians when they come across archetypal street boys and park touts with red eyes and hoarse voices and aggressive behaviour, totally ignoring the bottles of ogogoro (local alcohol drink) consumed and recently, codeine and tramadol pills.

In 2015, former Washington DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier said: ” all these do (arrests) is make people hate us, marijuana smokers are not going to attack and kill a cop, they just want to get a bag of chips and relax, alcohol is a much bigger problem”. If anyone should know how dangerous marijuana users are, who better than the police officer responsible for locking them up?

More importantly for a country battling dwindling revenues, youth unemployment and looking to diversify its economy through agriculture, Marijuana presents a good opportunity for Nigeria.

Legalisation of Marijuana will help create new businesses and jobs (direct and indirect). From the “unskilled” farmhands, dispensary attendants to the PhD trained financial analyst of companies vested in the Marijuana industry. Jobs mean new or improved wages and salaries, which in turn translates to an improved standard of living. Better accommodation, healthcare can be afforded, children can be sent to school, leading to an improved state of well being.

According to Leafly’s 2020 Cannabis Jobs Count, cannabis directly employs more than 243,700 full-time workers in the U.S. calling it America’s greatest job-creating machine.

New businesses and jobs also will help the government generate revenue through taxation. Taxes rased from businesses and employees can be used by the government to carry out its functions and increase spending. Improved revenue means more money for improved healthcare centres, schools, infrastructure, social welfare packages, amenities or looting as the case may be.

From 2014 when the state of Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use, it has generated over $1bn in taxes for the state government. California raised that figure in just two years after legalising the plant for recreational use in January 2018. Seeing as Nigeria generates less tax than Luxembourg a country with a population of 602,000 citizens ( heard this startling fact on The Economists “The Intelligence” podcast), legalization of Marijuana should be considered as one of the numerous avenues to improve that abysmal stat.

With a couple of votes and signatures, drug dealers who were once classified as law-breaking criminals could be transformed to respectable tax-paying businessmen in the society, who don’t have to employ dodgy means to stay ahead of the law. Also saving government scarce resources that would have been allocated to persecute a futile effort.

Marijuana Legalization, Nigeria

Gov Akerodolu of Ondo state, alongside NDLEA chairman Col. Mustapha Abdallah (retd) in Thailand for the Medical Cannabis Extraction Development Program. Photo: @RotimiAkeredolu.

With the global cannabis market projected to be worth up to USD 145bn by the end of 2026, it would highly be unfortunate should Nigeria miss out on the Canna rush.

In the words of the former chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and current governor of Ondo state, Arakurin Rotimi Akeredolu, after a fact-finding trip with the Chairman of the NDLEA, Col Muhammad Mustapha Abdallah (retd), on Medical Marijuana to Thailand, a country known for its very tough and severe drug laws. Thailand also recently removed Marijuana from the list of banned substances.

“We all know that Ondo State is the hotbed of cannabis cultivation in Nigeria. We know how to grow it and it thrives well in the Sunshine State. We would be shortchanging ourselves if we failed to tap into the Legal Marijuana Market,”.

Its only right and fitting that Nigerian laws should be made by Nigerians for the benefit of Nigerians.