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CANNABIS LEGISLATION:Consequences of legalising hard drug’ll be too depressing–Medical experts, clerics

• I will support the legislation, says Nwosu,ADC national chairman

The production, distribution and use of cannabis are criminalised by Nigerian laws, and its users are widely seen as social deviants, and are liable to arrest and imprisonment also. Yet, the country is said to be a major source of the West African-grown, with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) ranking Nigeria third in worldwide usage, just behind Iceland and the United States of America. In this report, ISIOMA MADIKE, through the eyes of experts, attempts to look at both the psychological and psychiatric consequences of the recent call for its legalisation in the country

“Legalise it”, a song made popular by a Jamaican Reggae legend, Peter Tosh, in the mid ‘70s, was not only a hit but reverberated all over the world with lovers of “Roots” as cannabis is often called. It is a flowering plant known by its many names such as Marijuana, Weed, Ganja, Kaya, Indian Hemp, and Igbo in local parlance among others. Despite the harsh and severe punishment, cannabis use in Nigeria is widespread; from the North to the Delta, with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) ranking Nigeria third in worldwide usage, just behind Iceland and the United States of America.

There are well-known places where it is “openly” sold around the country, ranging from N50 – N2,000, depending on the quantity and quality. Bigger bags are said to be goldmines. Besides, the drug is said to have over 400 medicinal elements that are useful to human kind, especially in the treatment of some chronic ailments such as cancer and glaucoma.

But, it has, over time, also endangered youths, particularly with huge psychological and psychiatric burden, according to medical experts. It is in this light therefore that the recent call by the spokesperson for the House of Representatives, Benjamin Kalu, for its legalisation in the country is causing ripples among medical experts and other Nigerians alike. Kalu had, on Monday, May 17, said that cannabis would, among other benefits, aid Nigeria’s industrial drive and boost her Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) if legalised.

But, in a quick reaction, a consultant psychiatric and president, Suicide Research and Prevention Initiative (SURPIN), Dr. Raphael Ogbolu, told Saturday Telegraph that the debate around cannabis has been on for a long time. Though cannabis, he said, is illegal in Nigeria and there are reasons, according to him, why it should be.

He said: “There is no doubt some scientific evidence that medicinal cannabis (not regular street cannabis) has some benefits in treating terminally ill patients with cancer and some other chronic painful conditions. However, there is abundant evidence that cannabis (marijuana or Indian Hemp), is harmful to the brain, especially the young developing brain. It has a strong association with psychosis and has been reported to bring forward the age of onset of psychotic illnesses.” Ogbolu also said that some people smoke it to self-medicate, saying it helps them keep calm and focused, but that there are many chemical components in the cannabis plant that have unknown effects and that many are hallucinogenic.

“For these reasons, many mental health experts advise against it. It is worse for those who have other factors that predispose them to mental illness, which they may be unaware of. People, who promote it, sell all types of information and myths such as that it is a healthy plant, that it is in the scriptures just to make it acceptable to the youth. “In my personal experience, working for years in psychiatry, there was a period of at least five years where I noted that there was at least one patient admitted due to cannabis related psychosis every month.

That is huge and enough evidence for me to err on the side of caution and join the voices against it. “The use in medicinal cannabis, on the other hand, needs more local research to evaluate its usefulness in Nigeria, and if it is to be encouraged, it needs very strict regulations. This requires discussions between the experts and the control agencies.

Besides, some who should know have linked the current state of insecurity to drug abuse, and cannabis cannot be exempt from this. “Another reason we should kick against the legalisation of cannabis is the likelihood of the legalisation being abused.

We do not yet have the societal discipline to not misapply the legalisation. One such misapplication is the ‘lacing’ of cannabis with other illicit substances, which is already a common practice, and will become worse if cannabis is legalised. “It will become a vehicle for other illicit drugs. How do our drug law enforcement agencies deal with that? Some young people are unaware that the cannabis they smoke may contain other drugs that can affect the mind as well. Such people have ended up in the hospital due to psychotic breakdowns.

“Why do we want to complicate an already hedonic problem? It is already an arduous task for enforcement agencies trying to curb the use of cannabis as it is currently illegal. That work will be even harder if they have to also track down ‘illegally laced’ cannabis. “On the balance of things, the economic and social costs of legalisation are too high and outweigh any still-arguable benefits.

Our economy does not have to look to cannabis to become its messiah. To cap it all, all drugs of abuse are additional risk factors for suicide and that is where I make my stand. All factors that contribute to suicide, directly or indirectly, should be prevented,” the consultant psychiatric, said. Another consultant Neurologist (Spinal Cord Expert), Dr. Biodun Ogungbo, in his contribution, quoted the position of the Guild of Medical Directors (GMD) on the issue. According to him, it has been discussed with the President of the GMD, Professor Olufemi Babalola, who, Ogungbo said, had given his consent to publish this as the opinion of the members of the GMD.

“We feel that we should not look towards cannabis as an agricultural product for Nigeria. There are many cash crops that Nigeria can focus on for generating revenue. Perhaps more important is the fact that this is not a topic that should consume our time. We have more important issues such as poverty, youth unemployment, poor health and educational infrastructure and rampant insecurity to discuss.

“We are not in support of legalising or developing cannabis for export as some other countries have. We have different priorities in Nigeria and should do our own decisional analysis on the pros and cons of the idea. The immediate past leadership of the NDLEA was strongly opposed to the idea and could not find any scientific justification for it in Nigeria. They felt it would not be of benefit in our country.

“The Guild of Medical Directors is opposed to the legalisation of cannabis in Nigeria. We feel it will endanger our youths with a huge psychological and psychiatric burden. Given the poverty index in Nigeria and our poor health infrastructure, this is a bridge too far,” the GMD consensus, reads.

In his personal capacity, Babalola also said: “I am not in support of the use of cannabis for commercial purposes, as has been the case in many western countries. While we are looking for cash crops and replacement for our dwindling oil fortunes, we must not make the mistake of going down the path of endangering the future of our youths in the pursuit of filthy lucre. “We must not justify an amoral enterprise with the necessity to escape our prevalent poverty. The psychological and psychiatric consequence on our unsuspecting youth of such enterprise is too depressing to imagine.

We, in the Guild of Medical Directors say NO!” Similarly, Dr. Doyin Odubanjo, Public Health physician, said that Nigerians must begin to evaluate economic gains in the country beyond the obvious sales/direct financial gains of a product. We must take economic analyses, he said, on a wider scale to include the economic benefits of other things such as health.

He said: “In this instance, more needs to be done to prevent what adverse effects to health such might have and therefore impact on the economy if the affected are unable to work and contribute to the economy. Will the number of users/addicts increase? What percentage of them is likely to be addicted and or incapacitated by the use? “Also, what will be the economic burden of the treatment of these people whose health might be impacted negatively? It’s when we have data for these questions that an informed decision should be taken as to whether to legalise it or not.” Also, Dr. Ode Oderinde, said while the House of Reps.

spokesperson may be right on the one hand, on the other hand, the demerits outweigh the benefits. “No serious minded nation should contemplate such in the midst of seemingly unending security challenges. The legalisation would lead to a situation where more people are detached from reality (via uncheckmated usage), hence becoming much more easily influenced to engage in criminality,” he added. And a university lecturer at the Delta State University, Abraka, Dr. B.C. Anyanwu, decided to bring in an historical angle to the debate when he said that cannabis or weed or whatever has always served several purposes, especially in the medical sphere. The call for its legalisation, according to him, has been ongoing for years dating back to Peter Tosh and other Rastafarian brothers, particularly in Jamaica.

“In life we work for the general good not for the few. Yes, cannabis may do the economy some good but the government has always used it to that end, which in government approved quarters like the medical field, it’s approved because its use can be controlled. Even in the military, it serves its purpose. “But, openly legalising it would neither make the economy better nor the society healthier. We have an unstable youth population that cannot manage their emotions; thus for their sake, let the status quo be maintained,” he submitted. The clerics have also lent their voices to the debate.

For instance, the Director, Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), Professor Ishaq Akintola, has said to call for legalisation of cannabis is an attempt to compartmentalise Nigerians into vicious drug cartels and turn the country into another Mexico on the African continent.

He said: “We already have serious security challenges. Boko Haram has been here for more than a decade. We have a homegrown kidnapping crisis. Desperate separatist movements have turned into terrorists. We have cultism-related killings in our cities and among our young students. “The security challenges we are currently facing are punishments for our recklessness. Instead of thinking of making criminal elements in the country ‘turn back from their evil’, Kalu wants to cap the edifice with drug war. There is no gainsaying the fact that the legalisation of cannabis will be the last straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of its impact on insecurity and the last nail in the coffin of morality in Nigeria in terms of the country’s descent into the abyss of moral debauchery, which began a long time ago. “Of course we know where Kalu is coming from. This lawmaker spoke in Akure, the capital of Ondo State on May 17. Nigerians will recall that Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State has been advocating for the legalisation of cannabis since 2019. There is no doubt that he has not given up. Kalu is his latest recruit into his cannabis promotion camp. “The Akeredolu school of thought is only thinking of the material aspect and economic gains obtainable from the legalisation of cannabis sativa (also known as Indian Hemp). According to Kalu, The Global Industrial Hemp Market, which was valued at $5 billion in 2019, is projected to reach $36 billion by 2026. He also argued that countries like Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and South Africa have legalised cannabis.

In addition, he contended that marijuana is medicinal, that it would create jobs, boost foreign exchange (with an estimated value of $125 billion by 2025). “We know about all these but has Kalu and his principal, Akeredolu, given the ‘Nigerian condition’ any thought? Have they put in place the necessary precautions? Do Nigerians obey laws? Do they listen to simple instructions? Where else in the world do you have people driving in the opposite direction (one way) when there are bold traffic signs warning against it? “Has Kalu thought of thousands of innocent lives cut short by commercial drivers, who indulge in taking drugs at the motor parks, and immediately jump inside their vehicles to take unsuspecting Nigerians to their early graves? Can Kalu convince us that those who burned hundreds of brand new luxurious buses of the Lagos State government during the #EndSARS protests were sober and totally drugfree? Cannabis had not been legalised at that time.

Does he want a proliferation of that disaster by giving easier access to cannabis? “Nigeria is passing through unimaginable social trauma at this period. The crime rate is very high and it is mostly induced by drugs. Suicide is rising by the day and many cases have been traced to drugs.

The major point raised by Kalu and Akeredolu has been economic benefit but what have the politicians done with all the billions of dollars from oil all these years? “What does Nigeria stand to gain if it makes billions of dollars from cannabis but destroys the country? You cannot sow the wind without reaping the whirlwind. We already have a large number of youths whose lives have been ruined by drug use even without legalising cannabis. What then should we expect if we eventually make it legal? Students, area boys, cultists will go haywire. Drug-related cases will increase in psychiatric hospitals. “Cannabis may have its benefits but the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. I therefore call on the House of Representatives to reject any attempt to smuggle the Cannabis Bill into the hallowed House.

This House must not become the House of Marijuana. It must remain the House of reform, progress and dignity. “I’d advise Governor Akeredolu to drop his cannabis dream for massive investment in food production. Our people are hungry. Our land is fertile. Give us yam, rice and cassava pyramids. No to drug addiction; No to marijuana.” Bishop Stephen Ogedengbe, founder and head of Evangelical Ministries (Wisdom Chapel), calls the call for cannabis legislation a shameful deliberation by “our so-call honourables when the world is going digital and high technology, Nigeria is talking cannabis with the level of insecurity and youth restiveness.

I think the Honourable members want to take care of themselves and their political thugs to cause more tension in our communities “We have so many mineral resources in our various states all over the country but are being managed by lazy political leaders. We surely need divine intervention in our dear country Nigeria. Electricity, good economy and security are what they promised us, we are still waiting and praying. God help Nigeria.” In his contribution, the Director, Directorate of Social Communication, Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos, Fr. Anthony Godonu, said: “I think the spokesperson for the House has lost his focus by calling for the legalisation of hard drugs like cannabis.

At the moment, what are the most pressing needs of Nigerians, cannabis or food? “The lawmakers should concern themselves with legislating and enhancing our national security so that farmers can go to their farms safely to produce food for the nation.” While the National Chairman of African Democratic Congress (ADC), Chief Ralphs Okey Nwosu, is of the belief that cannabis is in all the street corners and institutions. “You will be amazed how many of our kids are on it. So, legalisation or not, makes no meaning. I am concerned by the criminalisation aspect. “Although we all know it is on our streets and work places and used by the lowly and mighty, we look the other way. Rather than criminalise ordinary people, who mostly are the victims, I will support the legislation,” he argued.

Before the recent call, a bill to legalise the cultivation and trading of cannabis for medical use as well as for revenue generation in Nigeria had been proposed. The bill titled: ‘A Bill for an Act to Regulate the Cultivation, Possession and Trade of Cannabis for Medical and Related Purposes’ was proposed by Miriam Onuoha, a member of the House of Representatives in January. According to the bill, conditions for the cultivation, buying, selling and consumption of the drug should be set to ensure that only medical personnel prescribe the dosage of cannabis for the treatment of patients while pharmacies will be allowed to sell it. The bill also proposed that a licensed seller, who sells more than the prescribed dose to a buyer, would risk imprisonment or pay a fine.

The bill read in part: “A person, who grows, and sells cannabis, not for medical purpose and does not present the particulars required for registration commits an offence and upon conviction should be sentenced to two years imprisonment for or pay a fine of N1,000,000. “A licensed seller, who sells more than the prescribed dosage to a buyer, would risk imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine not less than N500,000. Also, a buyer, who ingests it without prescription should be jailed for two years or made to pay a fine of N500,000”

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