MPs’ say on the hot bhang debate

NATIONAL |

From left to right: Kenyans MPs John Kiarie (Dagoretti South), Sylvanus Osoro (South Mugirango) and Caleb Amisi (Saboti). [Standard]

On Monday, May 17, a section of Rastafarians in Kenya went to court seeking the legalisation of marijuana cultivation, use and sale in the country.

The petitioners said, in the court documents, that the drug plays an important role in their daily social and religious activities.

Through their lawyers, Shadrack Wambui and Alexander Mwendwa, the petitioners stated that the drug, when used for religious purposes, acts as “sacrament”, which connects them to their “creator”.

According to them, they smoke, drink, burn the substance for spiritual, medical, culinary and ceremonial purposes.

The High Court in Nairobi is yet to set a date for the hearing of the petition.

In Kenya, it is illegal to sell or smoke bhang. Contravening this law, could result in the offender being jailed for 10-20 years.

Debate on whether it is high time bhang was legalised in Kenya has been brewing.

In September 2018, the late Kibra Member of Parliament Ken Okoth said he was intending to introduce a Bill in Parliament to push for the decriminalisation of bhang use and sale in the country.

His quest, which he said would help in easing pain during medical treatment, wasn’t successful.

A few politicians have since come out to state that they smoked, or have smoked, bhang in their lives.

Former Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko, during an interview on Citizen Television in January 2019, stated he smoked bhang in the past.

Sonko even went ahead to suggest that marijuana should be legalised in Kenya “in honour of the late Ken Okoth”.

With several quarters pushing for the legalisation of bhang use, no MP has been bold enough to take the debate to the House.

'Outside here', however, the lawmakers hold varying opinions on whether bhang should be delisted as an illegal drug in the country.

Narok Senator Ledama Olekina is among the few legislators, who have publicly stated they would support a push to decreminalise the cultivation, use and sale of marijuana.

“Currently, almost 80 per cent of the lawmakers smoke bhang,” he said in a December 2020 interview on Spice FM. “I am not kidding,” he added, without revealing the source of his sensational information.

According to the senator, marijuana has “many benefits”, and the Kenyan Government should “take the bold step” by legalising its use and sale.

“Kenya should be more liberal. We are a poor country because we believe certain things are immoral,” said Olekina.

Another MP, John Kiarie (Dagoretti South), has been quoted pushing for the sale and use of bhang.

According to Kiarie, the Government should look at the macro benefits of the drug, which he, says, would boost the industrial and medical sectors of the Kenyan economy.

“I feel it is time we also consider legalising marijuana in this country, Mr. Speaker,” Kiarie said in Parliament on February 18, 2021.

“I know marijuana is pest-resistant. It is time we stopped being cowards as a House and start looking at crops that will be of benefit to this country,” added the MP.

The legislator’s school of thought has been supported by his Saboti counterpart, Caleb Amisi, who claims the Government can get a lot of revenue from allowing the cultivation, use and sale of marijuana.

“Currently, the business is illegal, but people are still engaging in it, and the Government is not getting anything in return,” Amisi told The Standard.

According to the MP, Parliament should be debating on how to control its consumption and who should be allowed to cultivate and sell the drug.

Asked to explain why he hasn’t sponsored a Bill pushing for recognition of bhang as a legal drug, Amisi said he is “avoiding unnecessary attention on himself”.

“This [initiative] has to come from a common mwananchi who feels it’s high time we, as MPs, passed a law that legalises bhang. When an ordinary Kenyan petitions Parliament to pass such a Bill, then I would be at the forefront in helping him or her push that agenda in the House,” said Amisi.

“If I dare initiate such a move as Caleb Amisi, then the State could think I have hidden interest in the bhang business,” added the lawmaker.

While a section of MPs believe time is ripe for Kenya to legalise marijuana consumption, others, led by South Mugirango lawmaker Sylvanus Osoro, hold contrary opinion.

“The effects of that action could be detrimental,” he told The Standard. “We cannot prioritise money at the expense of people’s health and lives.”

The MP said his “strong Christian upbringing can’t allow him to support the push to legalise bhang use”.

“I will oppose the quest to legitimise bhang use and sale. If an MP brings such a Bill to the House, he or she should count me as one of the lawmakers who will strongly oppose him or her,” he said.

According to Osoro, bhang significantly contributes to mental illnesses.

Another public figure who is opposed to the legalisation of marijuana is former Naivasha MP, John Mututho.

Speaking on KTN News on Tuesday, May 18, Mututho, who is a former chairperson of NACADA, said a move to decriminalise the sale and use of marijuana will boomerang on the Government.

Mututho said bhang grown in Kenya could have serious medical consequences on users, which might even lead to death.

“The bhang cultivated somewhere in Europe has a psychological effect contribution of a 0.2 per cent. The marijuana grown in Kenya has a 10.2 per cent psychological effect contribution. This might lead to wild imaginations and hallucinations,” he said.

Mututho said the potency percentage varies from continent to continent, country to country due to climate, type of soil, altitude, among other factors.

The ex-MP warned Kenya should not join Lesotho, South Africa, Malawi and Zimbabwe in relaxing anti-bhang laws.

A 2019 United Nations report shows that bhang is responsible for more than half of the people undergoing drug abuse treatment in Africa, raising concerns that if MPs in Kenya allow the cultivation, use and sale of the drug, then the situation will move from bad to worse.

“In most countries, cannabis is the most widely used drug, both among the general population and young people, and most people in drug treatment in Africa, the Americas and Oceania are being treated for cannabis use,” the UN report said.

The report, which was based on data from 130 countries globally, suggested that 192.2 million people aged 15-64 used cannabis at least once in 2016. This was an equivalent to 3.9 per cent of the population in that age range at the time.

Bhang use among teenagers aged 15-16 years stood at 13.8 million, representing 5.6 per cent of the population in that age range, at the time.

At least 15 countries (or states) in the world have legalised the use of bhang. These include: Canada, Jamaica, Ecuador, Uruguay, Netherlands, Georgia (state), South Africa, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Croatia and Czech Republic.

Zimbabwe allows the use of bhang for medicinal and research purposes.

Medicinal uses of bhang

Bhang, a paste made from the buds and leaves of the Cannabis sativa plant, is typically added to food and drinks.

Like other cannabis products, it may offer benefits, such as protection against pain, muscle spasms, seizures, nausea, and vomiting.

Still, its use also carries risks. Bhang should be avoided by people with certain health issues or during vulnerable life stages, such as childhood, adolescence, pregnancy, and while nursing.

In countries that allow bhang for medicinal purposes, before one is allowed to use it, a diagnosis of a debilitating condition must be made. For minors, evaluation by two different practitioners is recommended.

A debilitating diagnosis can include anything from posttraumatic stress disorder, cancer, migraines, and Tourette's to dementia.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) reports that there has been an increase in prescription of medicinal cannabis among minors and more demand by parents seeking an alternative route to allopathic medications.

There have been some initial positive results in the use of cannabis in treating different disorders in children including cancer, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the Center said.

“Unfortunately, these have been very limited studies with a very small sample size rather than robust and well-formulated controlled trials.”

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