Big debate as Kenya mulls legalising bhang use
When marijuana is discussed within legal circles, it is usually in the context of an individual who is on trial for possession or trafficking. The individual is often arrested or goes into hiding after the police, through a heads-up, nab a vehicle transporting rolls of the ground plant.
That is about to change should a petition on whether or not marijuana should be legalised for medicinal purposes — and, if so, who should be allowed to grow it — sail through Kenya’s legislative process.
The petition seeks to rewrite the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Control Act, which lists cannabis as a banned substance.
According to the law, any person found with any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance is guilty of an offence. Where the person satisfies the court that the drug was intended for personal consumption, the convict is handed ten years in jail, while those trafficking are imprisoned for 20 years.
Although marijuana — referred to by many street names, such as bhang, pot, weed, herb, or joint — is one of the most abused drugs in the world, there is an ever-growing gap between the latest science around, and the myths surrounding, it.
Marijuana has in more recent years been the centre of controversy because of its use as a medicinal agent, and the push to legalise it has gained traction throughout the world. Increasingly, because of its use as a medicine for various chronic ailments, bhang is perceived by many as harmless.
That is why, on the afternoon of February 15 this year, the Senate veered from its heavy schedule of discussing drought and a biting doctors’ strike to consider the rather peculiar petition by a Kenyan researcher.
Gwada Ogot wants the government to decriminalise cannabis, and then go ahead and legalise it for medical use.
Citing the legalisation movement in America and other countries in Europe and Asia, Ogot states in his petition that “the crime and controversy around cannabis sativa derive from its prohibition, and not the plant itself or its users”.
“Cannabis sativa has multiple documented medicinal and industrial uses,” argues Ogot, “and decriminalising the plant would result in great social and economic benefits for the country.” He adds that the plant is “God’s gift to mankind”.
As a result, the petitioner recommends that people serving jail sentences for possession, cultivation, transportation, sale or use of the plant should be released from prison, and that the plant be removed from the country’s list of dangerous and illicit drugs.
In response, the Senate ordered the country’s Committee on Health to review the petition within 60 days.
Excitement over the move went through the roof, and in the heated debate that followed, senator and then presidential candidate Kenneth Okong’o Mong’are openly admitted to having been a regular smoker as a youth.
Although many senators were in disagreement with Mong’are, he went on to call for the government to regulate “free trading and consumption of the substance”.
“Strict regulations do not help. It [marijuana] is abused because of laws criminalising it. The problem with Kenyans is living in denial,” Mong’are said.
Despite making bhang illegal and a little hard to get a hold of, Kenya is considered one of the more tolerant African countries with a long tradition of cannabis use. In fact, it is estimated that as much as 1,500 hectares of land in the country are used to grow the plant in the lower farmlands, concealed among traditional crops; or up in high-altitude areas regarded as national wildlife reserves.
A 2007 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, titled Cannabis in Africa, found that cheeky Kenyan farmers engage in large-scale cultivation of the plant, primarily in the Lake Victoria basin, in the central highlands around Mt Kenya, and along the coastline.
Despite two successful, highly publicised targeted raids of 14 farms at the foot of Mt Kenya that destroyed 461 tonnes of cannabis in 2001 and 2002, the report continues, police observed an increase in the production and trafficking of the crop during 2004.
Also, a 2015 study by the National Authority for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse (Nacada) found that bhang is the most widely used narcotic drug in the country, with about one per cent of the population aged 15-65 years being regular users.
Fast-foward to 2017, and less than 48 hours after Ogot presented his case before the Senate, more than 1,400 Kenyans had signed a petition seeking the legalisation of bhang. If the petition is adopted, it will no longer be illegal to plant or sell the marijuana.
Ogot argues that the plant has multiple documented benefits, and that its medicinal and industrial uses, upon its legalisation, will be of “great social and economic gains” to the country. He advocates for the establishment of a regulatory body (Cannabis Sativa Board of Kenya) to oversee planting, trading, and consumption of the plant.
“Research has indicated that bhang can be used for medicinal purposes. It is disease-resistant and can be replanted several times a year without using pesticides,” he argues.
To back his petition, Ogot, who admits to smoking bhang during his teenage years, says most countries in Europe and Asia, as well as some states in the US, have already legalised the use of marijuana.
In the Kenyan context, marijuana is mostly regarded as being of recreational use, but this is probably true for not more than five per cent of users. For the rest, it has medicinal purposes.
Because of its use as a medicine for various chronic ailments, marijuana is sometimes perceived as harmless. Pain is the main reason people get a prescription, and so the drug is used to manage the effects of headaches, cancer, glaucoma, some forms of epilepsy, or nerve pain.
However, marijuana use can impact one’s perception and judgment. Persistent and heavy use can also contribute, over time, to various social problems.
And so, the big question; since the drug is slowly but surely finding favour in legislative bodies across the world, should Kenya decriminalise it?
Prof Lukoye Atwoli, Dean of the School of Medicine at Moi University, says that it is ridiculous to punish a “victimless crime”.
“The high risk of mental problems brought about by using bhang cannot be used as a legal argument to criminalise the substance,” he says, adding that decriminalising the drug will favour research to allow people discover how to use it.
“Marijuana has been shrouded in a lot of historical misconceptions and misunderstandings which are not scientifically proven,” explains Dr Atwoli, who says that if anything, coffee and tea are equally psychoactive substances.
But not everyone buys into the idea of legalising bhang. Among these is West Pokot’s John Lonyangapuo, who was among senators opposed to Ogot’s petition arguing.
“How can a Kenyan think of legalising bhang?,” he posed. “Think of the damage it has caused! Though it may generate money, it leads to damage in the home and causes a lot of social disorder. In fact, the committee should propose more penalties!”
Other senators were opposed to the idea of allowing police to grow the plant as suggested by Ogot. Nyandarua senator Muruiki Karue said law enforcers can neither be trusted to cultivate nor transport the crop.
“Our system has proven that we cannot trust it to regulate bhang,” said Mr Karue.
Prof Wilfred Lesan said there was a need to investigate how the by-products from the plant can be harnessed for productive use.
“Whether we decriminalise it or not, we are more concerned with products from the plant once processed,” he argued.
The Senate Health Committee Chairman Wilfred Machage said the committee will investigate the matter.