Marijuana, is one of the most controversial plants on Earth. It goes by slang names such as pot, kush, reefer, ndom or bangi.
Marijuana is illegal in Kenya and many other countries although a wave of decriminalisation has been sweeping through the world.
Criminalisation stems from its assumed hallucinogenic effects of the tetra-hydro-cannabinoid compound (THC) activated through consuming or smoking the plant. This has resulted in the classification of the plant as an illegal or controlled substances with heavy penalties for cultivation, possession or use.
Ordinance 14 of 1913 instituted by the Colonial government provided for the suppression of opium and certain other opiates including bhang and any other product included by the governor. Section 3 of the Narcotics, Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Control Act of 1994 upheld the classification of marijuana as a narcotic and offenders face fines of up to one million shillings or ten years imprisonment.
In May 2021, Members of Parliament passed a Bill to amend the Narcotics Act proposing punitive measures of life imprisonment and fines of Sh50 million for drug traffickers. The amendment reduces the sentence for possession of marijuana to Sh100,000 fine, five years imprisonment or both, indicating a shift to approaching substance addiction as a public health challenge requiring recovery-focused interventions, as opposed to incarceration and punishment.
Perceived harmful effects
The prohibitions on marijuana are based on its perceived harmful effects on individual health and wellbeing, its high potential for addiction and the negative overall effect this has on society. An addicted population is believed to have low economic productivity and is susceptible to crime, hence criminalisation serves as a deterrent. In fact, these prohibitionist approaches just like the Nixon Era assumptions that marijuana was a gateway drug that led to addiction to more dangerous drugs have never been confirmed via scientific evidence. In fact, the recent UN reclassification of cannabis from category of most dangerous drugs in schedule one (I) to less harmful schedule four (IV) which has drugs with immense medicinal and recreational values confirmed that the assumed negative impacts of cannabis have always been exaggerated. The prohibition has led to disproportionate incarceration of young indigent population.
Various bills and amendments to current drug laws have been proposed by both pro- and anti-marijuana activists, with the former calling for relaxation of the laws and the latter requesting harsher penalties as the drug's use becomes widespread particularly among Kenyan youth.
While drug prohibition laws are crucial in protecting the public from serious harmful and potentially fatal Schedule 1 substances, it is worth noting that disparities exist in the legal regime regarding the other more addictive and potentially harmful substances such as tobacco and alcohol that result in estimated seven million and three million deaths per year respectively.
The destructive effects of alcohol addiction are exhaustively documented, and tobacco smoking has been declared a critical public health problem by many governments and supranational agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), but both are legally and socially permissible. This discrepancy demonstrates the influence of policy and legislation on public perception as Kenyans have a decidedly negative view of marijuana users as unkempt and lazy idlers.
Results from a recent study commissioned by the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa in western Kenya in a quest to establish indigenous perspectives on marijuana show that Kenyans are willing to have robust debates towards a more relaxed legal regime. Respondents in the study were drawn from diverse demographic mix including elders and youth of both genders.
Surprisingly, responses from the elders indicate that marijuana has been in use in Kenya since pre-colonial times, with the plant being ascribed various pharmacological, social and spiritual functions. It was used as a painkiller for women during childbirth and to soothe teething babies, the leaves were crushed and used as ointment for measles and skin conditions, among other medical uses. These medical aspects of marijuana were elaborately covered by the Standard newspaper on the August 30, 2021 in its Health and Science section.
Socially, men of a certain age would gather to smoke in designated 'smoking huts' and the plant could be freely smoked by women and men during ceremonies such as weddings and feasts. Further, marijuana was used in religious rituals to invoke visions and commune with the spirit world. Community members still believe in the plant's purported supernatural powers and having a marijuana plant in one's homestead wards off evil spirits.
In light of the findings, it may be time for lawmakers to review the status of marijuana. The review will ensure that the effects of the current practices are checked. The strict legal regime has had devastating effects among them the high costs incurred in policing and curtailing individual freedom, incessant and unnecessary arrests of productive youth and the underground operations that encourage the black-marketeering. These two quotes below summarises the communal views;
“With the continued criminalization that resulted from the colonial era and morality laws, young and energetic poor boys are in jail and others forced to operate underground or have had their livelihoods destroyed for being in possession of just a roll of bhang. This should not be the case since most if not all of these boys are victims who actually need help and not incarceration”
“The nature of human beings is that the more you deny them the opportunity to do something, the more they would want to do it. Therefore, criminalization of the weed makes it more popular, costly and people then defiantly use it as part of the anti-government practices. The poor are the most affected as if it is a class war”.
We believe that time is ripe to have a robust debate devoid of the moralists arguments of marijuana consumption being ‘satanic and ruinous’ to the youth. The idea that legalization increases consumption is as obnoxious as the religious argument that legalizing abortion will increase the uptake.
Prof Owuor Olungah is an associate professor of Social Anthropology at the Institute of Anthropology, Gender & African Studies, and University of Nairobi.