Should Nigeria legalise marijuana?

Penultimate week, Ondo State’s Gov. Rotimi Odunayo Akeredolu, literally turned himself into the Jamaican reggae idol, Peter Tosh (now late), when he asked the Federal Government to legalise the cultivation of marijuana or “igbo” as our people call it. Botanical name: cannabis sativa. It is also called Indian hemp, “gbanna” “crack”, among other names and aliases. Peter Tosh, in one of his deviant songs, had crooned: Legalise it/And I will advertise it.” If the Federal Government legalises “igbo” today, Gov. Akeredolu is ready to immediately begin its cultivation on a massive scale to earn foreign exchange for struggling Ondo State. Trust the typical Nigerian elites not ready to think out of the box; those who do not see eye-to-eye politically with the governor; those who feel threatened by Akeredolu’s advocacy which seeks to “put sand in their garri;” and, of course, those who must defend their “territory” or do their job. Among these are the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) and a motley crowd of presidential pleasers.

Until this controversy broke, I never knew of the existence of the Presidential Advisory Committee for the Elimination of Drug Abuse (PASEDA) under the able leadership of my friend and brother, retired Brigadier-General Mohamed Buba Marwa, former Military Administrator of Lagos State. I dare to say that Marwa remains, till date, one of the best governors Lagos ever had. He also remains, in my view, one of the finest leaders that can take this country to the real next level (If you know what I mean), if given the opportunity. Although the press statement issued in his name pillorying Akeredolu for his “legalise marijuana” statement was unnecessarily harsh, I am reluctant to arraign Marwa with the motley crowd listed above because of his illustrious antecedents. We shall return to that.

Abeokuta agog as Buhari arrives today 

Together with some other Nigerian leaders involved in the drug abuse war, Akeredolu had visited Thailand to see, according to the NDLEA boss, Muhammad Abdallah, how that country was trying to solve its own drug abuse problems. From the NDLEA’s press statement attacking Akeredolu, Abdallah saw Thailand’s efforts at diverting the attention of its own people from the cultivation of illegal crops (i.e. marijuana) to legal crops (possibly, rice). There is nothing wrong with that and we can encourage it here as well. Ondo State, which Akeredolu governs, has the reputation or notoriety (depending) for hemp cultivation. It is obvious that the hemp farmers grow the crop for commercial purposes; they sell it to earn money to take care of their needs. No one needs to grow cannabis on a large scale for personal consumption.

While growing up in my home town of Owo in the sixties and seventies, I had helped soldiers of the 133 battalion of the Nigerian Army quartered in the town and who were our tenants to water and look after their marijuana crops. They were usually planted in pots, cups and such other containers. There was no big deal about it. There are, however, many other crops that can be grown as foreign exchange earners in Ondo State such as cocoa, cassava, palm trees to mention but a few. If the FG comes with the requisite resources and the NDLEA and others bring the experience acquired in Thailand, Ondo State can be weaned, to a large extent, from the cultivation of marijuana and their attention diverted to the cultivation of other economic crops. Mere destruction of cannabis farms without replacing them with something else is sheer waste of time and resources. It has not worked and it will not work.

I said “other economic crops” because marijuana is, indeed, an economic crop, which is a potential foreign exchange earner. It is also medicinal crop, used as anaesthesia and is component of many drugs that we consume to cure one ailment or another without batting an eyelid. This is the other side of the coin that Akeredolu was drawing attention to – and you will not blame him for doing so. He runs a state that is cash-strapped. He has ideas but no funds to execute them. He sees his people in a quandary. Suddenly he sees a window of opportunity open that can help the state build its internally generated revenue. He has also seen that the age-old practice of destroying marijuana farms has not delivered the desired results. Those pillorying Akeredolu are closing their eyes to the whole picture.

There are always two sides to a coin. The single story mentality sees and dwells on only one side of an argument – and this is perilous. The impression has also been created, even if inadvertently, that Akeredolu meant that marijuana should be cultivated for local use, so that it can ruin more of our youths. I read Akeredolu’s statement; that was not what it said or intended. He wanted the medicinal value of hemp explored like the civilised world is doing – and I agree with him. He wanted the foreign exchange value of hemp explored like others will do if they are in our shoes – here, again, I agree with him. He simply was asking that we begin to think out of the box and address the issue holistically. I am not an Akeredolu fan. I have more often come down hard on him than praise him, but on this issue of government having a better and more robust outlook on marijuana, I stand with him.

That is, however, not to say that the other side does not have a point; which is why I said earlier that this issue is like a coin; it has two sides. It is like a bird, which African-American politician, Jesse Jackson, said needs two wings to fly. The adverse effect of marijuana, indeed all dangerous drugs, on the population, especially our youth, the so-called leaders of tomorrow, cannot be trivialised, glossed over or wished away. I must confess that I don’t know how it will be done, but we must ensure that local cultivation of cannabis for export does not lead us to becoming end-users of the product. Already even with its criminalisation, hemp cultivation and use go on unabated, the best efforts of NDLEA notwithstanding. Owelle Nnamdi Azikiwe told a Colonial officer: If a policy is not working; change it! Organised crime is usually steps ahead of law enforcement everywhere and more so here where enforcement is generally lax and corruption, rife. Even with its criminalisation, people smoke hemp openly everywhere these days in broad daylight.

To think this was what they ceaselessly brutalised Fela for! Today it is everywhere. If Fela, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and others could see from the grave, they will feel vindicated. What is worse, more dangerous but legal drugs are in circulation today. Some are not even drugs but a combination of two or more legal drinks; add “sweet” to a drink and, pronto, you have drugs more potent than marijuana! Some just sniff a refuse dump or soak-away! What are we talking about! Who needs marijuana or cocaine/heroin to get high these days? That’s too expensive and up there. Hard drugs, dangerous drugs, are everywhere around us. And they are legal. We must begin to think out of the box!

Is there anything with advantage that does not have a disadvantage? Are there drugs without side effects? Is cigarette not harmful to health? The carbonated drinks and volumes of sugar and sugary substances and foods that we gobble are all harmful to our health – but they are legal! Crude oil/gas exploration and production are dangerous to people’s health. Gold mining and such other extractive economic activities endanger not just people’s health but also their life; yet, we engage in them. Pity we don’t have statistics here to show which of these and marijuana cause the worse adverse effects on people’s health and life. Think out of the box! Abandon the one story narrative and critically examine this issue holistically. In the US, the Americas and Europe, marijuana is being legalized along certain lines. If we can’t take the lead; let us be among the early risers and not come in late after everyone has taken all the available benefits. The sluggard mentality, attitudinal problem of “fire brigade” approach and “carrying last” have impacted negatively every facet of our national life. Think out of the box! Back to Marwa: I trust in his ability and immense capacity. I have watched him at close quarters unravel seemingly intractable problems with adroit touches and Solomonic wisdom.  I beseech that he let us do so again by investigating the Akeredolu initiative further. Each day that breaks, new discoveries, new knowledge, new possibilities and vistas compel us to interrogate expired dogmas, stereotypes and old ways of doing things.

North’s search for crude oil

Talking about Marwa reminds me of how our paths first crossed in the late 1980s, I think, when he was military administrator of old Borno State (now Yobe and Borno states) and I, Features Editor of The PUNCH newspapers. I had been sent to Maiduguri to interview him. I arrived as Marwa was setting out for a tour of the State. He gave me two options: To return to Lagos and come back after he might have returned from his tour or while away the time in Maiduguri to await his return. I asked why I could not go with him on the tour. He looked surprised. “I am going to the desert”, he said, adding “it is harsh out there.” I asked if those of them making the trip, which included journalists like me, were super-humans. He said “No, but you are from Lagos and we are used to it.” I insisted I would cope if given the opportunity. That trip opened my eyes “life and direct,” as they say, to what is called desert encroachment. Beloveth, “encroachment” is a mild word to use; “invasion” is better.

One day, on our return from Mai Malari village, I think, Marwa stopped the convoy and sent for me. “Bola, can you recognise this place?” I looked around and said “Yes.” Was this not the tree under which we refreshed two days ago?” He said correct; but lo and behold, the tree’s trunk had been covered by sand dunes, only the leaves waved in the air. He said in another day or two, nothing would be left of the tree. What a graphic picture of the menace of desert encroachment! That was twenty-something years’ ago. So when President Buhari made one of his many reckless statements of “the desert is driving us from the North and they are driving us from the South, where do they want us to go?” I understood where he was coming from. It also informs, I dare to say, the criminal silence, nay complicity, of the North’s ruling elite concerning the herdsmen’s bestiality as they seek pasture for their flock down South as well as the criminality of Northern youths running from the desert and sowing terror, sorrow and tears in the South.

But they are not as helpless and the situation not as hopeless as they will have us believe if only they will put their money where their mouth is. Before our very eyes Dubai, Qatar, United Arab Emirate, not to talk of Israel, have been transformed from desert to Eldorado’s with just a fraction of the humongous sums we have wasted and continue to waste here. Northern Nigeria is desperately in search of crude oil. The search has been on long before Buhari. If the billions of dollars wasted on that fruitless effort is spent fighting desert encroachment, we will all be the better for it.