VIOLET MENGO, Lusaka
OSWELL Siame’s first experience with marijuana was during his early days in college when a friend enticed him to smoke.
Oblivious that the drug would cost him his education, Oswell started enjoying marijuana because each time he smoked, it would make him feel ‘high’.
“The feeling of taking marijuana is something I cannot explain, it makes one feel so high and gives one false hope of conquering the world,” he said.
But things got to a point where Oswell, 21, got addicted to marijuana until he was expelled from college.
Some call it dagga while others, chiefly Rastafarians, call it weed or ganja or herb, but the Drug Enforcement Commission calls it cannabis—a forbidden drug in Zambia.
Marijuana has different names depending on one’s location. But the commonly used and preferred term by many people is marijuana.
In recent times, there has been renewed debate as to whether the drug should be legalised.
This is after several countries have done so for medicinal purposes-a scientific fact that was established by researchers way back in the 1840s.
Studies by a French psychiatrist doctor, Jacques-Joseph Maoreau, found that marijuana suppressed headache, increased appetite and aided people to sleep.
Chile, Netherlands, Colombia and Czech Republic are among the countries that have legalised marijuana for medicinal purposes. And recently, Zimbabwe just became the second country in Africa after Lesotho to legalise cultivation for research and medical use.
And Zambia wants to join this list of countries that have legalised the drug for medicinal purposes.
Minister of Health (MoH) Chitalu Chilufya says Government is considering legalising marijuana for medical reasons.
“We have countries that have legalised medicinal marijuana,” said Dr Chilufya. “Zambia ponders this use of medicinal marijuana based on the conditions that there is clear process of cultivation to development of the medicine without slipping out for recreation.”
Part II of the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1967, Cap 95 of the Laws of Zambia provides for the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes. The Act also provides for the licensing, importation, exportation, production, possession, sale, distribution and use of dangerous drugs, including cannabis or marijuana and its derivatives thereof, intended for medicinal and scientific use, whether in humans or animals.
However, those intending to venture into the business must obtain a licence from the MoH.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, medical marijuana refers to using the whole, unprocessed marijuana plant or its basic extracts to treat symptoms of illness and other conditions.
Because the marijuana plant contains chemicals that may help treat a range of illnesses and symptoms, many people argue that it should be legalised for medical purposes.
In a ministerial statement in parliament in 2017 following increased calls on the government to legalise marijuana cultivation for medicinal purposes, Dr Chilufya said it was an offence for anyone to cultivate marijuana, even for medicinal purposes, without a licence.
“We use marijuana for chronic pain resulting from certain chronic medical conditions; nausea and vomiting in patients receiving certain treatments such as chemotherapy and loss of appetite in patients with certain chronic conditions,” Dr Chitalu said.
Marijuana is also used in patients with epilepsy; glaucoma, a condition associated with increased Intra-Ocular Pressure (IOP) in the eye; and multiple sclerosis symptoms, a condition that is associated with spasticity, frequent urination and pain, inflammation of the skin, muscle and other connective tissues.
A multi-sectoral team has been constituted that would conduct a research in countries where the process has worked to ensure that there will be no loopholes for recreational use of marijuana. Cannabis in Zambia is illegal for recreational use.
Until such a time, Dr Chitalu says the DEC and Zambia Police will continue to police and mete out appropriate punishment to anyone who uses marijuana illegally.
While Government ponders the legalisation of the cultivation of cannabis, many health personnel think the move is a step in the right direction.
Zambia Medical Association (ZMA) president Abidan Chansa in commending Government, has pledged the association’s support to the successful implementation of the plan.
“ZMA is a member of the World Medical Association which has said marijuana can be used to cure ailments,” Dr Chansa said.
Dr Chansa has since called for the domestication of research on how best the herb can be legalised for medicinal use in Zambia.
He says the most important step is to restrict the use of marijuana to medicinal purposes only because the plant has properties that can help expedite healing of open wounds and give relief to muscle pain.
Health Professionals Council of Zambia registrar Aaron Mujajati says Government needs to come up with regulations and guidelines for those that would want to venture into the business of medicinal marijuana.
“Although we welcome the proclamation by the minister, we feel that more still needs to be done because marijuana is still a prohibited drug in Zambia,” Dr. Mujajati said.
And opposition National Restoration Party (NAREP) says the legalisation of marijuana for medicinal purposes is long overdue.
Party spokesperson Bwalya Nondo said they had critically looked into the issue and found out that the benefits of legalising marijuana for medicinal purposes far outweigh the disadvantages.
But other people believe that caution is needed as the country prepares to venture into cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
An academician Mutambanshiku Bwalya says while the cultivation of medical marijuana is good for the country, Government should not be pushed to legalise the drug for recreational purposes.
He called for serious studies and analyses to be carried out and that later, Government could think of allowing other uses of the drug.
However, for Peter Sinkamba, president of the Green Party and a strong advocate of marijuana use for economic development, believes the drug could offer both commercial and medicinal benefits to the country if properly cultivated in State-run farms.
Mr Sinkamba said marijuana has potential to bring in an income of US$36 billion per annum.
Currently the cultivation and possession of marijuana is illegal in Zambia and many people have landed themselves in jail for it.
Muscian Maiko Zulu, formerly known as Saint Michael, was in 2009 sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour, suspended for one year, on one charge of trafficking in five balls of cannabis weighing 17 grammes.
Today Mr Zulu is excited by Government’s decision to legalise the cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes, but wants it to go a step further by legalising the drug for recreation and industrial use, too.
He said prisons would be decongested as a result of legalising the usage of the weed because there are many peasants in jail for cultivating cannabis.
“Zambia can learn a lot from countries that have legalised the use of marijuana. We need to look at benefits that accrue to Zambia by the use of the drug for various purposes,” Mr Zulu said.
For a start, people propose that the cultivation of the drug should be restricted to State-run agencies to avoid illegal usage.
The decision, though highly commendable, has its own consequences and Government will need to seriously seal the loopholes before legalising marijuana cultivation.
Failure to do so could result in people like Oswell, who use marijuana for recreation, growing in number.
VIOLET MENGO, Lusaka