Late last year, a draft marijuana control bill was scheduled to go before Kenya’s Parliament – if it gets backing from a majority of parliamentary members. The proposed bill was tabled by member of Parliament Kenneth Okoth, who wrote to the national assembly speaker to give notice of introducing the bill before Parliament. Okoth and others who support the legalisation of marijuana – including scientist Simon Mwaura and economist David Ndii – argue that the controlled medicinal and commercial benefit of marijuana outweighs its ban. Known locally as bhang – marijuana was banned before independence under the 1933 Dangerous Drugs Act, which was replaced by the 1994 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Act.
According to the 2018 World Drug Report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, cannabis is the most trafficked drug in the world, with over 190 million users. Despite being illegal in all East African countries, cannabis remains the most planted and seized drug. In Morocco marijuana is also illegal, but quasi permitted by government. It fuels a US$10-billion industry that employs at least 800 000 people.
Kenya’s draft bill is the first step by an East African country towards decriminalising marijuana. The bill controversially calls for currently convicted users to be acquitted and for the establishment of research institutions to explore potential economic and health benefits. Proponents argue that a flourishing bhang industry in Kenya could reduce unemployment and generate revenue through taxation.
Law enforcement authorities frequently seize large marijuana consignments across Kenya and along its borders with Tanzania and Uganda. These seizures indicate a booming black market in the region. Bhang is grown mostly in villages on the Tanzania-Kenya border, in the Lake Victoria basin and parts of the highlands. More research is needed to paint a clearer picture of who grows the cannabis and controls the trade. The number of seizures made has been increasing. Although this could point to heightened production, it could also suggest improved law enforcement in this area.
In September 2018, South Africa’s highest court allowed the private use of marijuana. Other countries – including Malawi, Ghana and Swaziland – are also discussing and investigating options to legalise the substance.
Legalising marijuana in Kenya would have ramifications for neighbouring countries, especially if it remained illegal across the country’s borders. Internationally, some experts argue that legalising marijuana would not reduce organised crime, while others contend that it would. In Kenya, the debate is still at its initial stages, but it is fast advancing and gaining much attention.
According to the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse, cannabis use has been detrimental to Kenya’s societal fabric. Additional research is required to understand better the surrounding criminal market, actors involved and the dynamic of the trade vis-à-vis its harm. If the bill is legislated into law, the outcome will significantly depend on the regulations put in place, and the government’s ability to enforce them and control the production, trade and use of bhang in Kenya.
Mohamed Daghar, Researcher, ENACT project, ISS