Why Kenya won’t budge and legalise bhang soon, but has idea come of age?

 By Obote Akoko

Kenya: Should Kenya legalise growing, transportation, sale and possession or use of bhang? This million-dollar question has been asked in the academia and social circles since the state of Colorado in the USA, recently legalised marijuana.

The plant, which has traditionally gained international notoriety for its glorification and vilification in equal measure, has names such as marijuana, pot, weed, ganja, hashish, dagga (in Belize), bangi (its Kiswahili name) and obwa chieth liech (Luo for elephant’s faeces) among many others. Scientifically known as Cannabis Sativa, bhang is classified as a narcotic drug under Kenya’s Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act No.4 of 1994.

Buoyed by growing scientific research findings and strong push by powerful lobby groups across the US, at least 14 states in that country have over the years reviewed their laws to either legalise or de-criminalise marijuana cultivation, sale, possession and use for various reasons.

Kenya reined in the drug through the 1994 landmark legislation following years of outcry from government and the society in general.

Investigations by The Standard on Sunday revealed that, with many Western countries slowly warming up to the legalisation of marijuana, the wind of change may motivate Kenyans to lobby Parliament to review existing laws and, possibly, decriminalise bhang possession (including smoking and medicinal uses), growing, transport and sale. Is Kenya likely to go the Colorado, Portugal, Switzerland, Spain, Netherlands or Uruguay way by allowing people to enjoy smoking Cannabis?

Very potent

Nyatike MP Edick Omondi Anyanga was categorical that legalising bhang would be tantamount to ruining the lives of Kenyan children and their future.

‘‘Where bhang is grown, people don’t even think of going to school. We must not ruin future generations through such a move’’, he said, warning: “Should we legalise bhang, crime rates would escalate in Kenya’’. 

In December last year, anti-narcotics police uprooted tonnes of bhang worth millions of shillings from a farm at Macalder in Nyatike District, Migori County, following an ambush. Swoops on major highways, in Nyandarua County and parts of Mt Kenya region have in the recent past netted daredevil consumers, growers and traffickers of huge masked bhang hauls.

Interviews with the National Authority on the Campaign Against Drug Abuse (Nacada) Chairman John Mututho left no doubt that if legalisation of bhang were to take place in Kenya, it would happen “over his dead body”.

Mr Mututho warned that types of marijuana that Colorado (US) and most Western countries have legalised were less potent compared to local bhang.

‘‘Kenya cannot make the mistake of allowing the future of her youth to be ruined by such a move,’’ Mr Mututho declared, adding: ‘‘Bhang is too potent; legalising it would cause more harm than good. The US and some of those Western countries have strong medical schemes (health care systems), advanced monitoring and rehabilitation mechanisms to deal with the consequences of drug abuse. Kenya does not’’.

According to the Nacada boss, legalisation of bhang would spell doom and disaster for Kenya. ‘‘This is not about politics or greed but the health of Kenyans and its future generations,’’ he argued. Mututho rubbished claims by a person  recently caught processing Cannabis Sativa for medical use that he (the suspect) had been licensed by Nacada.

‘‘The board of Nacada neither issued any such licence nor approved the processing of a medicinal product from bhang,” Mututho said, reiterating that Kenya would not gain economically or in any way from legalisation of the plant. Many experts support his sentiments.

Dr Donald Kokonya, a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Psychiatry, argues that no overwhelming scientific evidence exists to support legalisation of Cannabis for medical use. In his view, the bigger threat is misuse or abuse of the narcotic drug that outweighs any of its merits.

‘‘Kenya does not have the capacity to control or effectively deal with adverse consequences of legalisation of bhang like the US,” he asserted. ‘‘Even in Colorado state and many countries, it has met resistance. Here the public demand is very low. Since there are other better options, its medical use would be no justification for its legalisation in Kenya’’.

Sober debate

In reference to the high number of mad people roaming the streets of Luanda Town in Vihiga County, Dr Kokonya, who is a mental health specialist, cited rampant smoking of bhang by locals as a contributing factor to the phenomenon that has baffled Kenyans for years. ‘‘Certainly it (abuse of bhang) is behind it!’’ He affirmed. ‘‘It causes more harm than good’’.

Reverend Boniface Obondi of Great Lakes University of Kisumu (GLUK) says Kenyans need to soberly debate the merits and demerits of the case for legalisation of bhang.

 ‘‘If drug extracts were to be manufactured from Cannabis, then legalisation should place tighter controls at the factory level and ensure purchase of the medicine on prescriptions only,” he said.

Article 3(3) of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1994 permits pharmacists, medical practitioners, dentists, veterinary surgeons and authorised drug manufacturers and importers to carry out their official duties related to authorised handling of such drugs. However, sections 4, 5, 6 and 7 spell out tough penalties for various breaches of the law, including forfeiture of land on which bhang is grown, its storage premises or vehicles used for trafficking/transportation of the same.

Reverend Obondi, the GLUK Dean of Students, argues that should existing laws open the slightest window between the farmer and factory, Kenya could find herself at the mercy of cartels of traffickers and drug abusers, thus negating legalisation of bhang. The Anglican cleric posited that moral relativism would also pit practitioners of religious tolerance against intolerant faithful, who would outrightly reject the idea.

Despite expert opinions on the matter, many ordinary Kenyans think otherwise. Whereas Mututho says countries legalising marijuana are in it for economic gains, he does not broach the idea of Kenya reaping big from growing and exporting the controversial Cannabis in whatever form, just like miraa (khat). Those who think otherwise include Hellen Atieno, a resident of Kisumu’s Nyalenda slums.

She says: ‘‘Many families have been selling bhang for years. It has enabled them to educate their children to university. It has sustained them economically all these years. I think legalisation of bhang would create wealth for millions of Kenyans’’.

Atieno argues that idle youth would stop idling around if they were legally allowed to sell bhang for a living. ‘‘After all, bhang is used as a traditional medicine among certain communities, including the Luo’’.

According to Michael Odotte, Cannabis is used as medicine for management of high fever related to HIV and Aids, and pancreatitis. Dr Odotte, who is secretary of the technical committee of Herbalists Association of Kenya, says bhang should be legalised and licensing of its products strictly controlled or supervised because it is classified as a dangerous drug.

But Kennedy Abade says even in Norway, where medical marijuana is available on prescription only, illegal forms of the narcotic are sold all over the place. ‘‘In Kenya, illegal cartels would ensure they control the business such that even efforts to collect taxes would not yield much,’’ he asserted. “The cartels find the black market more lucrative now than if bhang were legalised in the country’’. 

Lucrative trade

Prof Job Jondiko of Maseno University says the use of pot does not have adverse effects per se. However, he argues, that the adverse effects people see have arisen from processing of the stuff for use in injections and other acts of abuse. He supports the debate but is cautions against reviewing the current law without proper evidence base.

‘‘Kenyans have been treated with many toxic substances against the law,” he said. ‘‘This is what drives the business of marijuana underground. Legalisation could enforce standards and improve the situation, hence reduce most of these violations’’. The chemistry professor says that, culturally, consumers of Cannabis have been using it “under camouflage” due to the strict laws.

Prof Jondiko says if Kenya wanted to go the Colorado way, then the Government would have to plough back part of the proceeds from the bhang economy into subsidising the cost of drug control, treatment and rehabilitation of addicts in the society. ‘‘There would definitely be some health and economic benefits provided people obey the law’’, he said.

Prometra-Kenya Chief Executive Martha Njama explained that her organisation had been fighting for a traditional medicine policy together with other stakeholders but was cautious about legalisation of bhang. ‘‘We have seen the damage caused to children and adults by Cannabis’’, she warned. ‘‘If scientists can come up with purified forms and appropriate doses that are well processed and controlled through prescription, then we would not mind using it’’.

Chief Research Officer at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) Dr Jeniffer Orwa says there is not enough scientific evidence to inform a change of the current laws to legalise bhang in Kenya. ‘‘We have not yet done any research on Cannabis sativa, but available information suggests it can be used for medical purposes,” she said.

Orwa, who is KEMRI’s Director of Traditional Medicine Research, however, hastened to add that there should be concrete evidence to support its legalisation or liberal use on medical grounds. She’s of the opinion that other countries have strong systems of control, monitoring and regulation of such drugs, including law enforcement agencies. At the moment, she supports the maintenance of the status quo.