Exporting cannabis for medical use can lift status of millions

Monday October 19 2020

Tanzania destroyed six hectares of marijuana planted in a forest in the northern Arusha region in its anti-narcotics war in 2018. FILE PHOTO | AFP

By The EastAfrican

Will marijuana, like a lot of the region’s agricultural exports, get out of the continent as a primary product as investors and controllers of refining technology cream off the big bucks? Will fear triumph over logic as governments stick to old anti-narcotics control laws to lock citizens out of the value chain as foreign investors are licensed to set up weed farms for profit?

These are pertinent questions in light of the enduring inequalities that have kept farmers in perpetual poverty which appears to defy all interventions. Despite their thankless task of keeping nations fed, farmers remain so poor in Africa that in most places, they are derisively called peasants.

A reformed and equitable market for this new product can help distribute wealth and improve the social status of millions. There are other compelling reasons for A-Z production and processing of marijuana. The major application for medical marijuana is the management of chronic pain in patients suffering from terminal conditions such as cancer.

In recent times, Africa, and the developing world in general, have seen a surge in the non-communicable diseases case burden. Yet poverty means that healthcare systems cannot afford these painkillers used in palliative care.

In 2014, for instance, 80 percent of the world’s population — mainly low and middle-income countries — consumed only 9.5 percent of the morphine used in palliative care. That is according to the International Narcotics Control Board which in 2018 found that 79 percent of the global population, still consumed only 1 percent of the 388 tonnes of the morphine manufactured worldwide that year.

Earnings aside, domestication of the medical marijuana value chain will democratise access to essential pain management medications.


Actually, marijuana or cannabis is not a new crop to Africa. Growing almost effortlessly across a wide swathe of the continent, the early European explorers found it in common use. Yet since the advent of the modern nation-state, it has been the subject of aggressive control, first by the colonial governments and later their successor post-independence regimes. The effect of this approach was to drive marijuana underground where in the absence of regulated use, it has been bastardised and stigmatised.

Without glossing over the risks, marijuana’s emerging use in therapeutic applications thus needs to be seen in more positive terms. That will, however, require an overhaul of the legal regime and the setting up of functional systems for its regulated use. That should not be a problem if a portion of the earnings from the crop can be ploughed back into financing effective regulation.