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Marijuana: Controversies over Ondo’s new ‘gold mine’

By Oluwaseun Akingboye, Akure
16 June 2019   |   3:38 am
More than a decade after the death of Stephen Oladipupo Owomoyela, popularly known as Dr. Orlando Owoh, his stance on the consumption of Cannabis Sativa, better known as Indian hemp or marijuana, seems to have become a prophecy that might even contribute to lifting the country out of its economic woes. In one of his…

Marijuana. Photo: Newshub

More than a decade after the death of Stephen Oladipupo Owomoyela, popularly known as Dr. Orlando Owoh, his stance on the consumption of Cannabis Sativa, better known as Indian hemp or marijuana, seems to have become a prophecy that might even contribute to lifting the country out of its economic woes.

In one of his popular songs, the late African Canary maestro, praised and advocated the legalisation of marijuana, which he said, “deserves some attention. If I see marijuana I will smoke; it is not a taboo to me.”

In recent times, the message behind the lyrics has been reverberating across the length and breadth of Ondo State, as the state government is making frantic efforts to legally cultivate marijuana for commercial and medical purposes.

Marijuana is an illegal crop widely grown in Ondo, Edo, Delta, Osun, Oyo and Ogun states. Indeed, Nigeria is ranked the eighth highest consumer of cannabis in the world, while Ondo State has its largest plantation in the country, which is also the second largest in the world.

Despite its wide use, however, the Nigerian society still harbours a strong dislike for marijuana, also known in many local parlances as ganja, kpoli, igbo, eja, sensi, efo, kuma, weed, morocco, wee-wee, push me I push you, and dope, among others.

Even though it is commonly smoked in slums and sundry environments, but its appeal is not limited to people at the lower rungs of society. Finding reveal that members of the middle and upper class, also consume the substance.

While some soak it in hot drinks, referred to as “monkey-tail,” others use it to spice their meals, boil it in hot water to make herbal tea. Some even chew the seeds and plants raw, like the Cobra, a permanent resident on marijuana plantations.

Physiologically, it has been proven that the consumption of cannabis sativa leads to increase in appetite, euphoria and relaxation of the muscles. On the other hand, it exposes users to some dangers as it causes anxiety, paranoia, impairs short-term memory and motor skills, thereby making it a black sheep among all plants.

In 2011, the nation’s image was dented by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report, which stated that cannabis use was prevalent among 14.3 per cent of 15 to 64-year-olds in the country. This revelation spurred the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) to action.

Subsequently in 2014, UNODC said Nigeria made the highest number of cannabis seizures in Africa after the NDLEA launched a series of anti-cannabis attacks, famous among which were “Operation Weed Eaters,” and one specifically in Ondo State dubbed: “Operation Thunderstorm,” to eradicate marijuana from the Nigerian space.

Records showed that between January and June 2014, the NDLEA arrested 4, 511 suspected drug traffickers and seized 47, 423 kilograms of drugs. Of that number, cannabis accounted for 45, 875 kilograms. Though these figures are high, large quantities of marijuana still find their way to the market, baffling law enforcement agencies.

But attempting to change the age-long narrative, Governor Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, who, coincidentally is Dr. Orlando’s maternal kinsman, during a recent study tour to Thailand, last month, announced his government’s intention to legally grow cannabis for medical and commercial purposes.

Though Orlando was from Ose Local Council, his mother hails from the ancient Owo Town, a neighbouring local Council that is also the native home of Governor Akeredolu. Owo and its environs rank highest among towns, where marijuana is planted, sold and merchandised.

As declared by the governor, who led the study tour to the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Cannabis Research Laboratory Naresuan University, Phitsanulok, Thailand, in company of the NDLEA Chairman, Col. Muhammad Mustapha Abdallah (rtd.), Nigeria could make as much as $145b in six years through legally cultivating and selling cannabis sativa.

He warned that failure to utilise the global legal marijuana market would cost the country an estimated $145b by 2025, describing his state as the hotbed of cannabis cultivation in the country.

“We know how to grow it and it thrives well in the Sunshine State,” he stated, adding that the Medicinal Cannabis Extract Development programme was centred around medicinal purpose to build capacity, and research the modality of licensing for planting and extracting cannabis oil in the country, which no doubt has commercial potential with focus to prosper the state economically.

He recounted that the visit to Thailand exposed him to the materials and best practices, with the possibility of replicating them in Nigeria.

Akeredolu also expressed high hopes on medical marijuana cultivation in controlled plantation, under the NDLEA’s full supervision.

He said: “We are here to study how cannabis can be of more advantage to Ondo State and Nigeria, just the way the Thai government has done. Cannabis is used for medical purposes. But how can it be cultivated for useful purposes and not be abused?”

The governor further explained that he planned to utilise the vast expanse of land in the state for the purpose, and appealed to the Federal Government to key into the vision, by entering the cannabis industry, as part of measures to boost the nation’s economy.

While admitting that he was aware of the legal and moral barriers militating against exploring the new goldmine for the state and nation, he stressed that since cannabis development was yet to be legalised, his administration was already in talks with the Federal Government to make it lawful for economic purpose.

Pointing to the NDLEA boss’ presence in the delegation to Thailand, the Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Mr. Yemi Olowolabi, who defended the governor against the barrage of criticism that trailed his declaration, said NDLEA’s cooperation showed that Federal Government had agreed to the development for economic reasons.

He said: “We are still at the rudimentary phase. Before we authorise cannabis development in this state, it needs to go through specific methods and we have started the techniques. The help we seek from the Federal Government is a joint effort through the NDLEA to ensure due processes are followed.”

Apparently, Akeredolu is not alone in this daring venture. The Presidential candidate of African Action Congress (AAC), Omoyele Sowore, during one of his campaign tours in the last general election, had declared that he would legalise marijuana if he became President of Nigeria.

Among the many people that cheered the governor on the initiative were, Seun Kuti, the son of the late Afrobeat maestro, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Apart from lauding Akeredolu publicly, he expressed his readiness to relocate to Ondo State, when the plan eventually pulls through.

For the record, Ondo State might not be mulling over a grotesque idea. Uttarakhand was the first state to be licensed to begin cultivating 1, 000 hectares of marijuana on a pilot basis by the Indian government in July 2018. The cultivation started in Pauri Garwal region and was handled by Rohit Sharma, the Founder of Indian Industrial Hemp Association (IIHA).

The Setback
LESS than 92 hours after Governor Akeredolu’s declaration, the Federal Government, through the Presidential Advisory Committee for the Elimination of Drug Abuse (PACEDA), warned Ondo State to exercise restraint.

PACEDA argued that no amount of money was worth the lives of those that would be adversely affected by legalising marijuana.

Chairman of the agency, Mohammed Buba Marwa, summarily dismissed the idea given the background of government’s efforts to rid the nation of drug abuse.

He added that the timing of such sensitive venture was inauspicious as it could now prove counter-productive.

“It is disturbing that at this time, when about 10 million Nigerians are abusing cannabis, anyone or group will be considering or advocating that Nigeria legalises growing of marijuana for economic or whatever purposes,” the retired military governor of Lagos State said, adding, “Our committee spent the last six months going round the country to obtain firsthand information about the dangers of drug abuse and how to combat it. And we have been faced with the stark reality of how deep the menace has damaged and is still damaging lives, especially that of youths.

“No doubt, President Muhammadu Buhari was worried about this emergency situation, hence the decision to set up PACEDA to find a lasting solution to the threat. We should not, therefore, fold our arms or keep sealed lips, while deliberate attempts are being made to sabotage Federal Government’s genuine efforts in the nation’s interest.

“We should not forget so soon how many Over-the-Counter (OTC) drugs were made prescription medicine, when millions of our young minds and adults were abusing such. How can we then turn around to call for legalisation of cannabis plantation, when the Federal Government is still in the process of curtailing and eliminating same?

“We dare say no economic gain is worth the life of any Nigerian daily damaged on the street as a result of the effect of cannabis. There is, therefore, the need for all stakeholders at the federal, state and local government levels to rally round Federal Government’s efforts at eliminating the menace of drug abuse, rather than engaging in any counterproductive venture.”

Aside Marwa, other citizens have urged Akeredolu to invest the state’s assets in more meaningful ventures than the proposed Indian hemp business.

Comically, the senator representing Kaduna Central, Shehu Sani, satirised Ondo State government on his twitter handle, @ShehuSani on Wednesday, May 15.

“My brother Akeredolu, Lagos partnered Kebbi for rice, please partner Niger for beans, Kaduna for ginger or partner Benue for yam. Please leave this Indian hemp matter for now, abeg,” he wrote.

Soon after Akeredolu went public with his dreams, as well as the fact that he was in Thailand with the NDLEA boss, Abdallah countered saying that he was in Thailand for another purpose altogether and was not on Akeredolu’s entourage.

“I did not canvass the legalisation of cannabis. My presence in Thailand was to understudy the country’s successful migration of her citizens hitherto engaged in illicit poppy plant cultivation to the cultivation of legitimate economic crops and other lawful businesses,” he said.

He reiterated that cannabis plantation was still illegal in the country, and that his agency would see to the implementation of relevant law, though he mentioned that the country stands to gain immensely from the Thailand experience, which was the reason behind his agency’s move to understudy the country.

On the $145bn projection, the NDLEA boss stated: “My attention has been drawn to the misinformation in the media that His Excellency, Executive Governor, Ondo State, Rotimi Akeredolu and I were on a mission to the Republic of Thailand to learn how to grow Cannabis Sativa for medicinal purpose or for economic gains.

“This is far from the truth. By this statement, I wish to categorically
denounce the misleading information. At no point did I make any remark in favour of the commercial and medicinal value or monetary gain of cannabis while in Thailand.

“Thailand’s model, referred to as Sustainable Alternative Development (SAD) is the direction the entire world is heading and Nigeria cannot afford to be left behind. The United Nations regards Thailand as the incubator of SAD of sorts.”

He said Thailand is widely considered a success story in alternative livelihood development for generating income through farming of coffee, tea, fruits and crafts, which has helped in eradicating opium production.

He continued: “The Mae Fah Luang Foundation in Thailand, which implements the Doi Tung Development Project, has curbed the growth of poppy through this process. Subsequently, this has banished opium in Thailand. Nigeria seeks to achieve a similar feat in the eradication of cannabis.

“Sometime last year, NDLEA and Oyo State government visited the foundation in Thailand and the lesson learnt is already transforming the cannabis cultivation landscape in Oyo State, where government forests used for illegal cannabis cultivation have been acquired for a chain of agricultural activities, which gainfully engage hitherto cannabis farmers.

“Similarly, I make bold to state that Nigeria’s staunch opposition to legalising cannabis for recreational purposes was restated at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) Roundtable Conference, which was concluded in Vienna in March this year. Not only that, Nigeria canvassed for the position that the status quo ante be maintained, while decisions are made by the UN to alter the Single Convention of 1961 under which cannabis falls. These decisions are yet to be made.

“Both Nigeria and Thailand still abide by that same 1961 Single
Convention with regard to cannabis”.

Abdallah reaffirmed his agency’s commitment to wage an unrelenting war against the illicit substance saying, “for the avoidance of doubt, NDLEA, under my leadership, has been consistent in our opposition to legalisation and decriminalisation of cannabis.

“For example, Operation Thunderstorm undertaken by the Ondo State Command of NDLEA destroyed 3, 900.73 hectares of cannabis sativa planted in forest reserves. Once again, Nigeria’s position against the legalisation and decriminalisation of cannabis still remains in conformity with our laws: Cap N30 LFN 2004. NDLEA’s mandate is to implement the laws, no more, no less.”

Medicinal Benefits
A lot has been said about the medicinal benefits of marijuana for all age grades and all kinds of ailments. For instance, in The Guardian newspaper of Friday May 17, 2019 (Pg. 43), it was reported that “cannabis reduces seizures for children with difficult-to-treat epilepsy and period pain in women.”

The paper reported that taking pharmaceutical formulation of cannabidiol, a cannabis-based medicine, cuts seizures nearly in half for children with a rare and severe type of epilepsy, called Dravet Syndrome. It was a phase-three study released at the American Academy of Neurology’s 71st Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, May 4 to 10, 2019.

Some health and medical experts, who spoke with The Guardian but pleaded anonymity, affirmed that marijuana contains over 71 medical remedies for such ailments as glaucoma, lung problems, arthritis, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD), skin disorders, as well as regulates and maintains metabolism, asthma, cachexia and obesity. It can also serve as relief for HIV/AIDS patients, among others.

They said: “It proves effective for treating nausea. Chemical compounds in cannabis react with brain receptors to regulate the feelings of nausea. It potentially treats headache naturally and won’t chew through your stomach lining, or take its toll on one’s body.

“It has also been found to be somewhat effective in the treatment of a handful of sexually transmitted diseases, including herpes and chlamydia. It could help with speech problems. If anyone has an issue with stuttering, cannabis can help in the same way that it helps calm spasms and twitches.”

Legality Of Marijuana In Nigeria
THERE have been mixed feelings about the legality of marijuana in the country. These, more often than not, raise a lot of questions that have moral and economic implications. Some have even described the continuous illegal status of Indian hemp in the country as “throwing the baby away with the bath water,” when compared to its benefits in nations where it is legal.

Globally, over 26 countries have legalised cannabis cultivation for health and business. These include Canada, Mexico, Belize, Jamaica, Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium and Portugal, among others. It was first legalised in Africa by Lesotho in 2017.

The NDLEA is saddled with the responsibility of curtailing its cultivation, sale and consumption in Nigeria as enshrined in Section 3 of the NDLEA Act, by the promulgation of Decree Number 48 of 1989.

A breach of this law can earn a culprit a prison sentence, ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment, among others.

As stipulated in Section 11 of the NDLEA Act, any person who, without lawful authority “(a) imports, manufactures, produces, processes, plants or grows the drugs popularly known as cocaine, LSD, heroine or such similar drugs shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to be sentenced to imprisonment for life; or

“(b) exports, transports or otherwise traffics in the drugs popularly known as cocaine, LSD, heroine or any other similar drugs shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to be sentenced to imprisonment for life;

“(c) sells, buys, exposes or offers for sale or otherwise deals in or with the drugs popularly known as cocaine, LSD, heroine or any other similar drugs shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to be sentenced to imprisonment for life; or

“(d) knowingly possesses or uses the drugs popularly known as cocaine, LSD, heroine or any other similar drugs by smoking, inhaling or injecting the said drugs shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not less than 15 years but not exceeding 25 years.”

Analysing the situation, a renown legal practitioner, Kayode Ajulo, said a careful perusal of the NDLEA Act shows that there was no mention of legal use of narcotics, and that what could appear as a provision for legal use was provided for under Section 3 of the NDLEA Act.

The section provides that: “(1) Subject to this Act and in addition to any other functions expressly conferred on it by other provisions of this Act, the Agency shall have responsibility for. (h) the facilitation of rapid exchange of scientific and technical information and the conduct of research geared towards eradication of illicit use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances.”

Ajulo said: “It is in view of this provision that the NDLEA gave a letter of “No Objection” to Medis Oil Company Limited and two others to import seeds of industrial cannabis for research purposes.

“Similarly, under Article 3 Paragraph 5 of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to which Nigeria is a signatory to, it was envisaged that a drug may be deleted from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention if researches reveal its therapeutic advantages.

“A party shall, if in its opinion, the prevailing conditions in its country render it the most appropriate means of protecting public health and welfare, prohibit the production, manufacture, export and import of, trade in, possession or use of any such drug, except for amounts which may be necessary for medical and scientific research only, including clinical trials therewith to be conducted under or subject to the direct supervision and control of the party,” he further quoted a section of the law as saying.

So, “a careful reading of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs reveals that narcotics may be used by signatory states for research and medical purposes. Cannabis plant or its resin or extract with THC content lower than one percent is considered CBD (medical) cannabis and not psychoactive.”

Ajulo, who noted that marijuana has large potentials for job creation and recreational benefits, therefore, urged governments at all levels to decriminalise its cultivation, sale and consumption.

He said: “Presently, some countries have passed legislations that decriminalise the possession up to certain amounts and allows recreational use and cultivation up to certain amounts too. This raises some ethical questions on its widespread usage.

“At the core of this ethical debate is the question: ‘Is it morally wrong to be high?’ I am certain we will agree we might not have a winner in that debate. If we are to go by the fact that it impairs cognitive abilities, then it might be morally wrong to ingest anything that impairs our sense of judgment in any way.”

Hinging his submission on the utilitarian theory that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness,” Ajulo said, “from the facts and benefits highlighted above, there is really a need to legalise the use of marijuana in the country.

“It is succinct to point out that the war on drugs is often far costlier than the drugs themselves. Thus, if the money pumped against the use of drugs could be redirected in cultivating marijuana for economic use, there will be a great boost in the country’s economy.”

Faulting the Federal Government’s stance, he identified enforcement of the laws governing its illegality as one of the greatest problems facing government, in its bid to police and check illegal use of cannabis in the country.

He said: “This in itself has been one of the big drivers for calls for its legalisation across many countries. Most proponents of legalisation of its use for both medical and recreational purposes have contended that its criminalisation has not stopped its widespread use. Rather, it has helped deny people of its wonder working powers as a drug, especially in treating chronic pain as earlier mentioned.”

Ajulo appraised the Thailand cannabis model, saying the country’s military government unanimously approved marijuana for medical use, making it the first country to legalise cannabis use in any form in South East Asia.

“It is pertinent to note that Thailand was once infamous for its harsh penalties on drug users, including death penalty. Cannabis was also once extensively used in Thailand for medicinal purposes, as well as for clothing, where fibres from both marijuana and hemp plants were used in creating fabrics. Thailand’s cannabis is one of the country’s largest exports.”

He recommended that the National Assembly should be lobbied to amend the NDLEA Act and other relevant laws to make room for legal production, manufacturing, sale and use of marijuana in the country.

However, another legal practitioner, Mr. Tolu Babaleye, opposed the cannabis project, referring to the huge failure and lacuna in the country’s institutions as a stumbling block that will mar effective management of the project.

He said the much-talked about government regulation and control could not curtail societal ills and unfavourable conditions that might trail the initiative.

He said: “I will never support marijuana revolution in my dear Ondo State with the abuse of the substance that I see all around. State governments are a huge failure in management. Even now that it is illegal to trade in marijuana, the farming and trading is thriving everywhere. You can, therefore, imagine what will happen when it is thrown open.

“We are not as mature as the Ondo State government thinks. Marijuana farming and trading in Ondo State will increase the number of kolo mental people in town. You need to see how our youths are abusing drugs like Ventolin, Refnol, Benillyn Codeine, Tramadol and even this marijuana with the strict regulation and total ban on some of these substances.”

The legal practitioner, a chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), urged Governor Akeredolu to choose cassava, cashew, moringa or cotton “instead of marijuana. The time is not ripe to take this kind of risk, else the state will have the highest number of mad people in Africa in the next 15 years.”

Economic Benefit?
ASIDE the medical and legal issues, financial experts and industrialists have identified a myriad of products that can be produced from marijuana, industrial hemp or cannabis. They include, clothing, cosmetics, lotion, shampoo, soap, paper, food, feed, beer, biofuels, animal bedding, building materials, insulation, and car-moulding, among others.

The Senior Special Assistant to the Governor on Agriculture and Agribusiness, Pastor Akin Olotu, justified the moves by the state government on the huge economic advantages available in the cultivation of marijuana for medical use and other value chain opportunities.

Olotu, who was part of the delegation to Thailand, has been mounting series of campaign to change the ugly narratives against the $145b project in the state.

He stated that the current trend and disposition to cannabis would continue to inflict capital flight and subject millions of Nigerians to abject poverty.

He said: “I was in some of the foremost pharmaceutical companies in Lagos to check on the number of drugs on their shelves with cannabis contents. I was amazed at the list and their prices. Not just that, they are all imported. Our hard-earned forex is being unnecessarily expended on the importation of cannabis extract-based drugs. The foolish ones will remain servants to the wise forever.”

Destroying The Behemoth
DESPITE all efforts put in place by the Ondo State government, some public analysts have predicted eventual doom for the cannabis venture, if not well managed and articulated by Governor Akeredolu, despite its brilliance and feasibility.

A large percentage of people still believe it is a good step that can bring the nation out of economic mess and set it on the path of financial prosperity, especially now that agriculture is not making much impact, as envisioned by the diversification policy of the Federal Government. The world is fast moving farther away from oil, which is the mainstay of our country’s economy.

Many believed Akeredolu goofed on the Thailand tour, as the premature announcement of the visit was made in Thailand without first making efforts to lobby for legislation to change the criminalisation status of the substance.

They said he did not put the sensitive issue of drug abuse in the country into due consideration, thereby putting the cart before the horse.

Nonetheless, the President of Movement for the Survival of the Underprivileged (MOSUP), Dappa Maharajah, said the project is still achievable if the governor is strong and clairvoyant enough to raise a lobby team to change the narratives and make Nigerians see the sliver lining in the legal cultivation of cannabis.

He, however, faulted the advocacy policy, which he noted has been politicised by the governor’s supporters and his opponents within the ruling party and other opposition parties, saying it has become a campaign to score cheap political points.