Every year around 25 percent of the world’s cannabis is produced on the African continent. In 2005 the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) estimated that as many as 38,200,000 African adults smoke the drug each year. It is deeply ingrained in their culture and could play a massive role in their economy, yet despite the best efforts of many, it remains illegal. Why?
In years gone by it would have been easy to answer this question. At the beginning of the “War on drugs” the United States classified the drug as “Schedule 1”, the top category for problematic drugs that grouped it alongside the likes of heroin and cocaine. This somewhat extreme classification was then pressed on many countries across the world through its inclusion in the “Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs”, an international treaty introduced in 1961 that classes and prohibits the production, sale and use of illegal narcotics around the globe. The punishment for breaking this treaty could be severe and this forced countries to fall in line with the United States’ much debated drug policy.
On top of the fear of breaking international law, African countries also had to think about maintaining their relationship with the US and other western countries. The 1960s saw much of Africa begin to gain their independence and they started to receive aid from the US at the same. While the aid wasn’t so much of a good will gesture, more a bargaining chip, exchanged for African loyalty in the face of the Soviet Union, it was much needed. These factors saw drug policy in Africa stay aligned with that of the United States for decades, but recently things have changed.
The past few years have seen Western countries such as Portugal and the US make progressive strides towards the legalisation of the drug. Cannabis used for health or recreational reasons is now decriminalised in 21 states across the US, with California and Colorado making $60 million and $53 million respectively from cannabis tax last year alone. So why have African countries, some of which are among the poorest in the world, not entertained the possibility of going down the same route? There are a few reasons for this, and all of them seem to be products of the war on drugs.
To start with, the criminalisation of cannabis in the 1960’s created an opportunity for criminal groups to take control of the drug. Benefitting from the massive amounts of money to be made from it, they flourished. The gangs corrupted many of the politicians across their respective nations, either through monetary bribes or the threat of violence. This, combined with the fact that most of the countries where these groups operate currently lack the effective drug and law enforcement agencies required to tackle such issues, has lead many to the fear that the decriminalisation of the product would simply make it even easier for the gangs to operate and provide loopholes for them to exploit should they get caught.
An example of this fear was apparent in 2000 when several politicians in Malawi pushed for the legalisation of Indian Hemp, a close relative of the cannabis family. It was said that the product could be used to create textiles and other exportable goods that would boost the country’s struggling economy. After a brief parliamentary discussion on the issue it was concluded that the country’s police would struggle to stop criminals taking advantage of the new law. It was thought that it would make it easier for those looking to profit from cannabis sales, and have negative repercussions on the health of the already addiction plagued country.
While this is a legitimate fear for governments, many believe it to be short sighted. The decriminalisation of cannabis in the US has in fact made it harder for organised crime to benefit from the production and sale of the drug. With regulated sellers offering the same product as the criminals, most people now choose to buy the drug legally. This has caused the marijuana profits of organised crime to be severely depleted.
Would the same thing happen in Malawi, or indeed other African nations? Probably not without a fight. If the drug gangs thought they were going to lose out on a large amount of their profits from cannabis, they would likely use the officials in their pocket, or indeed their penchant for violence, to try to stop the change.
So if it is true that there are several legitimate fears for the governments of cannabis producing African nations, with regards to decriminalising the plant, why are so many still pleading with their elected officials to consider the option? Well it’s simple really, the current laws and regulations are having little to no effect on the drug lords, while they are almost certainly harming the poorest people across the continent.
A middle aged woman in Accra, Ghana, was recently arrested after being caught with a concoction of alcohol and marijuana that she had been selling to locals from her drinks store. She was sentenced to 11 years of hard labour for her crimes. While the selling and use of such drinks clearly has detrimental effects on the health of those taking them, the punishment clearly does not fit the crime, and borders on the precipice of infringing her human rights. This is just one instance of the current laws affecting those that would stand to gain from new, more progressive rules.
Across the continent many of the poorest farmers have turned to growing cannabis instead of the more common cash crops such as maize and paprika, mainly due to the significant difference in income they stand to gain from their produce. They are paid by the cartels for their crops and this allows them to live a more comfortable life than they had been before. It is these same people that are the victims of the current system.
The war on drugs was pushed on Africa by the UN and its member states, with many assistance programmes being implemented in the 1980’s. These programmes essentially forced African nations to implement archaic laws and policies that still remain today. These policies created a stigma around cannabis, and worse than that, cause serious human rights violations. Low level farmers and dealers that get caught cultivating the plant are often sentenced to extraordinarily long prison terms, while many countries are still imprisoning people without due process. An example of how backwards some of these policies are can be found in Guinea, where those caught have the option of serving jail time or paying a fine. This obviously allows the higher level dealers and distributers to escape using the cash they have made from the product, while consigning the farmers and street dealers to prison.
Maybe these penalties were originally meant as a deterrent to farmers and other growers, but they have become damaging and, in most cases, they infringe on peoples’ human rights. Even with these outdated policies, in some of the poorest nations in the world, where people struggle to feed their families on a daily basis, the benefits of growing marijuana still far outweigh the risks.
For the moment it seems as though Africa is stuck in a mindset that has now been left behind by the West, and sadly, this is through no fault of their own. Between fear of the gangs that gained power from the war on drugs, the imbedded corruption that was fostered by it and the stigma that now surrounds cannabis on the continent, Africa has once again been left to fight its way out of a problem that it did not create. With many governments having only the resources to deal with the farmers growing the drug rather than those controlling its distribution, it really is time that they considered a new way of doing things, and it’s only right that those in the West should offer support.