Turning to a new leaf: Should marijuana be legalised?
Category: Star feature Written by Judd-Leonard OkaforRings of marijuana smoke are not going away from Nigeria any time soon. They pour from the lips of big-name singers and motor-boys, drivers and teenagers.
And voices largely on the sidelines and in support of marijuana want their pastime recognised as less dangerous than cigarette. They also want it made legal.
Late afrobeat maestro Fela Anikulapo Kuti made no bones about smoking Indian hemp. And when his son Seun gave an interview, it wasn’t his musical genius that made headlines. It was an assertion that he smoked Indian hemp to relax.
Except, you could be forgiven for not recognising the thing at stake is cannabis. A plethora of names describe marijuana in Nigeria—ganja, weed, we-we, igbo, gbanna, joint, rizlar, ginger, grass, roll, witch.
Exactly when cannabis smoking took root is difficult to pin down. What’s not difficult to get is that its use is growing rapidly.
It shows in how many square hectares are devoted to cultivating the plant. More than 95% of the entire drugs haul—more than 5,000 kilos—by the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency last year was cannabis.
Going to pot
The case for smoking marijuana is building on the back of scattered evidence of some medicinal benefit of the plant. But the voices pushing it are very muffled.
Use of cannabis for medicinal purposes is old, but is still illegal in most countries. Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Canada, Switzerland have decriminalised pot smoking for recreational purposes in hopes of frustrating underground markets that support trade in drugs.
And at least two American states have recently passed legislation allowing cannabis or its derivatives to be used medicinally in low doses. Cannabis may have benefits in treatment of a range of conditions, according to medical literature. But it is the social impacts of cannabis that provides more ammunition for ganja backers. The evidence is selective: that cannabis doesn’t do the sort of damage that tobacco does—especially lung functions.
The argument is that nothing should stop marijuana being regarded on the same footing as cigarettes, if it carries the same warning as tobacco products. In fact, a report by the US Food and Drug Agency reported that cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the component which gives cannabis its effects—had low toxicity, and that consuming the plants didn’t deliver as enough amount to pose any threat of death.
Pro and anti
The pro-marijuana group is adamant that the campaign against cannabis is a manufacture of Western conglomerates seeking to secure markets for cigarettes; that legalising marijuana could support more local production and cut romance with cigarettes.
“If the government could find a way to regulate the marijuana market and derive revenue in the process, I am sure they will be willing to make it legal,” Marvis Omoregie responded in a post on a forum for doctors. “But that’s only what I reason.”
He adds: “In addition to that war [on marijuana], they also have a war against the kind of Tobacco sales that do not bring them revenue, they call this kind of tobacco 'illegal tobacco'.”
Said Michael Sylfad: “A lot of government and rich people have shares in the tobacco company[ies], hence, they are only eliminating competition and propagating monopoly be being stern in the war against marijuana.”
As yet Indian hemp is relatively expensive and still enjoys a cult status among its users. It is still a staple in isolated corners across the country—from lungus in Suleja, to koros in Ibadan. Dealers are reducing wrap sizes and cutting unit prices to as little as N10, and they want their business out in the open.
Medical literature doesn’t suggest marijuana use does wonders in a range of ailments. Smoke from cannabis contains thousands of chemical compounds—and the tar is chemically similar to what is found in cigarette smoke, including the same carcinogens.
But it is the social use that makes the case against marijuana equally vociferous. In the minds of many, it—and its abuse—is linked to violence and no good.
NDLEA describes THC in cannabis as “mood and mind altering” and causing a “high feeling in the brain”—whether smoked or ingested in various foods.
It also rubbishes the justification that marijuana is not physically addictive. “Marijuana decreases short-term memory capacity, creates confusion, paranoia, anxiety and restlessness. In addition marijuana can negatively impact a person’s motor skills as well as his/her ability to feel emotions,” the agency said on its website.
Kingsley Ekwe posted his response to a question whether marijuana should be legalised. He said on the forum for doctors: “Because we don't need to add to the harmful things that people legally have access to, we can infringe on the rights of marijuana to save a few people.”
That would also be infringing on the rights of those who report being calmed from smoking ganja, but the anti camp isn’t giving up. Nigeria is not at the level where it can legalise marijuana, says Dr Emeka Elemike of chemistry department, Federal University, Lafia. “The abuse of things makes it so that there are thing we don’t even legalise at all.”
National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, which regulates food and drugs in the country, is also worried about possible abuse.
Nigerians “have a way of abusing these things and we have to weigh in very carefully before we create problems that we might not be able to solve,” says Dr Paul Orhii, NAFDAC director-general.
“Right now we are battling with codeine-containing syrup. We are even considering restricting them,” he tells Daily Trust.
“We cannot just allow marijuana to be used by Nigerians. Most would rather abuse it. If for now there are ways of managing such conditions [as marijuana provides benefits for] without necessarily resorting to marijuana, I think there is no need to allow marijuana to be legalised at this point in time.”
But it’s the smokers in their teen years—playfully monikered the Indian Hemp Generation—that has watchers worried. A study on prevalence of marijuana smoking in Zaria found 18% of respondents aged 15 to 19 smoked cannabis. But there were also smokers aged as young as 10 years.
Majority of the young people in the study were introduced to marijuana at parties and were influenced by friends. The study published in the Annals of African Medicine also pointed to non-smoking children having better academic performance.