Posted by Onyedika Agbedo, Odita Sunday and Oluwaseun Akingboye | 4 weeks ago
The philosophical saying in some cultures that whatever that is sweet is also bitter seems to capture the hardline positions taken by those agitating for the legitimisation of cannabis cultivation and use in the country and those against the campaign. While the protagonists of the idea are looking at the economic and other benefits that would accrue from giving a legal backing to the cultivation, sale and use of the plant, those opposed to it are concerned with the damage which toeing that path might do to the Nigerian society.
In October 2020, the House of Representatives proposed a bill seeking to legalise the cultivation, sale and use of cannabis, also known as marijuana or Indian hemp.
The bill, which has passed through second reading in the House of Representatives, was sponsored by Miriam Onuoha, the lawmaker representing Isiala Mbano/Onuimo/ Okigwe federal constituency of Imo State on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC). It is titled “A bill for an act to decriminalise the growth and use of cannabis, to establish a system for the registration and licensing of cannabis growers, users and control, to legalise the growth, sale and use of cannabis and set out a legal framework for the registration and licensing of cannabis growers and producers in Nigeria; and for related matters.”
Essentially, the bill is seeking “to regulate the cultivation, possession, availability and trade in cannabis for medical and research purposes.”
Among the objectives of the proposed law is to: “Provide for a registration and licensing system for cannabis farmers and processors; regulate the cultivation, processing, availability and trade of cannabis for medical purposes and promote public awareness about the cultivation, processing, availability and trade in cannabis for medicinal and research purposes and its use in relation to medical or health purpose.”
However, the bill prohibits issuance of cannabis licence for medical use if such a person is without a proof that “he is either a medical doctor and intends to use it for medical purposes or a pharmaceutical company who intends to use an amount of cannabis, which may be determined as required, in producing a medicine for the cure of a certain disease or an epidemic.”
When the bill is passed, Nigeria will join the league of 30 other countries that have legalised the use of cannabis. They include Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech, Denmark and Finland, Germany, Greece, Israel, Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Italy, Poland and Jamaica. The rest are Luxemburg, Switzerland, Macedonia, Tury, Malta, Mexico, Uruguay, Lesotho, Romania, Dan Marino and Zimbabwe.
As legislative works continue on the bill, Nigerians have been arguing for and against it. In fact, more than a year before the presentation of the bill, Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State had kick-started the move for the legalisation of cannabis cultivation and use in Nigeria.
He began his advocacy after attending a programme in Thailand in May 2019 tagged ‘Medicinal Cannabis Extract Development’ with then Chairman of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), Col. Muhammad Mustapha (rtd).
Shortly after he returned from the programme, Akeredolu took to his official Twitter handle to announce that Ondo was ready to tap into the estimated $145 billion medical marijuana market.
He warned that since Ondo was “the hotbed” of cannabis cultivation, the state would be short-changing itself if it did not tap into the “legal marijuana market” with projected value of $145 billion by 2025.
Akeredolu admonished the Federal Government to encourage the cultivation of medicinal Indian hemp in the country, arguing that the industry was capable of creating thousands of jobs for youths and spurring the economic diversification of the country.
“Our focus now is medical marijuana cultivation in controlled plantations under the full supervision of the NDLEA. I strongly implore the Federal Government to take this seriously, as it is a thriving industry that will create thousands of jobs for our youths and spur economic diversification,” the governor said.
He revealed that he visited the Asian country to assess the materials and best practices of medicinal cannabis planting and growing, with the possibility of replicating the technology in Nigeria.
Speaking during a recent meeting with pharmacists in Akure, Akeredolu further argued that the abuse, usage and circulation of marijuana in the black market would drop drastically if it were legalised in Nigeria.
“In Ogbese, we can have a farm where NDLEA will be in charge. Nobody can take it out to smoke. From there, it gets to you for medicinal purposes. Pharmacists have been working on herbs; you can research on this too. It is one of the pathways to the controlled cultivation,” he noted.
When The Guardian visited some cannabis farmers in Ondo State, they all described the move to legalise the cultivation of the plant as a good step, saying they were eagerly waiting to see an end to what they described as misconception about their business.
One of the farmers in Akure/Ofosu Forest Reserve, who identified himself as Kofoshi, described the move to legalise the cultivation of the plant as a great development that would increase employment opportunities for youths and also help the country out of financial distress.
Hand Holding Marijuana Leaf with Cannabis Plants in Background
Kofoshi, who said many able-bodied young graduates were into the cultivation of the plant, noted that the illegality of the marijuana business made it risky to venture into over the years. According to him, people in the business have become preys to the NDLEA and other law enforcement agents.
“Because of anti-drug agencies, it is a kind of business you do with only one eye closed when sleeping in the night. We often lose huge amounts of money even though there is huge profit in the business.
“There was a time the NDLEA operatives stormed our plantations and destroyed several acres of marijuana farms in this area. It was a big loss. They set millions of naira on fire,” he said.
Another cannabis farmer in Ogbese, Akure North Local Government, also lauded the move to legalise the cultivation of the plant. The farmer, who did not want his name in print, said he sustained his household with the business. He disclosed that many cannabis farmers inherited the business from their forebears, adding that recurring attacks on them and their plantations were threatening their survival.
“I inherited this business from my forefathers and I have many relatives that have plantations across the length and breadth of this state. For your information, we are not just farmers, we have an association. But we can’t come out like other associations because we are not legally registered as an entity. We are an organised entity among ourselves and we have rules to moderate our activities,” he said.
He disagreed with the view that legalising marijuana would lead to more cases of insanity in the country, especially among youths.
“As I talk to you today, many people still use cannabis – smoking, drinking, eating and as drugs. Many people even eat it as vegetable. The constant clampdown on the plantations doesn’t make any difference; all that needs to be done is to educate and sensitise the public. People need to be aware of the economic benefits and this will change the perception of the people that will make them to think more about how to make more money from it rather than abuse it,” the farmer said.
A woman who operates a popular joint in Akure metropolis where ‘skushies’, a local by-product of cannabis is being sold, also said the step being taken to legalise cannabis was a welcome development.
She recounted how security agencies had been raiding her shop and disrupting her business.
“Our ‘skushies’ is harmless and we are making a lot of money from it. It has even been proven to have some medical effects on our customers. We will be glad if it is legalised and if government engages us in exploring its value chain for self-reliance and economic empowerment,” she said.
Other farmers and processors of cannabis in the state praised Akeredolu for his strong advocacy for the legalisation of its cultivation, declaring their support for him.
Also, the Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Benjamin Okezie, had, while addressing a press conference in Akure where he pre-announced a two-day stakeholders roundtable discussions on the benefits of the agricultural plant that held from June 7 and 8, 2021, maintained that Nigeria was only trying to toe the path of many other countries by initiating the bill.
“Nigerians must understand that we are not alone in this race to establish a lucrative medical and industrial hemp economy. Based on recommendations by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nations (UN) voted to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and re-classified it as medicinal and therapeutic on December 2, 2020. Some foreign countries have legalised medicinal and industrial hemp and other African countries are moving to do the same,” he said.
But the NDLEA is opposed to legalising cannabis cultivation and use in the country, arguing that it would do more harm than good to Nigerians. As such, Chairman of the agency, Brig. Gen. Buba Marwa (rtd), has been at the forefront of a re-energised campaign against its legalisation.
Speaking recently after a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari at the State House, Abuja, Marwa described the move to legalise cannabis as money versus life.
“Now, the WHO itself has declared that cannabis affects the brain, alters brain function. It destabilises and affects behaviour. It also affects body organs, and at some point, it can lead to death.
“So, while we appreciate those who want to legalise it for financial gains, we have to be careful to reconcile it with life. So, it’s money versus life. And up to this point, science has not developed up to the point where it can reduce the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in cannabis to zero.
“Therefore, cannabis is harmful to our health; it is a danger to society. We must never allow its legalisation. What’s more, Nigeria has 10.6 million cannabis users; this is the highest in the world. Isn’t it sad? We should be the highest in science, technology, mathematics, physics and not highest in cannabis. That is something we need.
“We can never support legalisation and I don’t see how the National Assembly would pass the bill because I know 90 per cent or more of the honourable and distinguished members of the National Assembly know the implications of this legalisation. They dare not go back to their constituencies if anyone signs legalisation because we are seeing the implication on the ground. The youth, the families are being destroyed because of cannabis and drugs. It wouldn’t be legalised by the grace of God,” Marwa said.
In an exclusive interview with The Guardian, spokesman of the NDLEA, Femi Babafemi, further buttressed the agency’s position, stating that the very presence of a bill seeking the legalisation of cannabis ran contrary to the raison d’etre of the creation of NDLEA.
He said: “We need to put the issue in proper perspective and that calls for an understanding of the fact that controls of drugs are derived from three international drug control conventions, namely the Single Convention on Narcotics Drug of 1961 (as amended by the 1972 Protocol), the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 and the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988. These conventions recognise cannabis as a dangerous substance.
“Cannabis, by its nature, was listed in Schedule I and IV of banned substances, where Schedule I refers to substances with addictive properties and which pose a serious risk of abuse, and therefore are subject to very strict control, and indeed, all measures of controls applicable to drugs under the convention.
As a Schedule IV drug, cannabis is labelled as a dangerous substance alongside cocaine, heroin and morphine, also listed in Schedule I.
“Schedule IV drugs are considered ‘particularly harmful and of extremely limited medical or therapeutic value’. Hence they are subject to strict control, including a complete ban on the production, sale/trade of such drugs, except for the amount which may be necessary for medical or scientific research.”
Babafemi, however, noted that on December 3, 2020, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), after a WHO review, decided to vote on the status of cannabis, adding that by 27 votes to 25, a decision to delete cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention was taken. He noted that Nigeria was one of the countries that voted against the deletion.
“Nonetheless, cannabis remains in Schedule I of the 1961 Convention and is thus still subject to all levels of control of the 1961 Convention. The implication is that despite the disparity in how individual countries treat cannabis, it is still a controlled substance, a dangerous substance.
“So with Nigeria being a signatory to the Conventions, it will be a contradiction to legalise the cultivation or use of cannabis. I think the pro-cannabis movement needs to go back and study the documents properly, on the one hand, and also try to update their knowledge about the dangers of cannabis, on the other hand.
“Some people will argue that a few countries, with Canada as the model, have legalised cannabis for medical and recreational use. The other side of this argument is that there are far more countries that refuse to cross the red line of cannabis. And that is where Nigeria stands, for good reasons.
“Germane to this discussion is the role of cannabis globally and nationally as an illicit drug. The World Drug Report of 2021 still cites cannabis as by far the most abused illicit substance.
“Firstly, not less than 10.6 million Nigerians abuse cannabis, according to the National Drug Use Survey conducted in 2018. That makes Nigeria the country with the largest number of abusers of cannabis. That is not an enviable position.
“Secondly, we should also factor in the recent study from Denmark, released in July this year, which shows a link between the use of cannabis and rising cases of Schizophrenia (a cannabis use disorder). The findings of the decades-long study indicate that smoking cannabis is not innocuous. So, for health reasons, the legalisation of cannabis portends great danger for Nigeria because already, we have the world’s largest abusers of illicit substances, even more than in countries that legalised them for recreational use. Legalisation will only worsen the situation.
“Thirdly, for those touting controlled cultivation, we can take a cue from the problems of pharmaceutical opioids, which are subject to strict control globally, but which the world is having problems with, regarding their illicit production, trafficking and abuse. What is the guarantee that the country will be able to control the cultivation, sale and use of cannabis? Your guess is as good as mine.”
Babafemi stressed that the legalisation of cannabis, in any way, is like Pandora’s box, warning: “We should not open it.”
According to the NDLEA official, cannabis is presently the most abused substance and a lot of users are suffering from the resultant disorder.
“I am sure that if the question is thrown open, public opinion will favour that the status quo remains. The UN and WHO allow countries to determine how they will approach the cannabis issue. And by and large, countries have made decisions based on their unique situation.
“The National Drug Law Enforcement Agency Act CT (1989 No. 48, 1990 No. 33, 1992, No. 15., 1995, No. 3 1999, No. 62) empowers the agency to enforce laws against the cultivation, processing, sale, trafficking and use of illicit drugs, and that includes cannabis. While the status quo remains, the agency stands opposed to any act to legalise cannabis and will continue under Section 3, subsection 1 of the NDLEA Act, to adopt measures to eradicate illicit cultivation of the psychotropic plant and to eliminate illicit demand for it.”
The foregoing clearly indicates that those for or against the Cannabis Bill have good reasons. However, where the pendulum would swing to at the end of the day remains to be seen.
Hand Holding Marijuana Leaf with Cannabis Plants in Background