Ugandans Need Sensitisation, Not Anxiety, About Medical Marijuana

Police officers burn marijuana in Buikwe District. Uganda has laws prohibiting Marijuana production without clearance from the health ministry.

A little over a year ago, my sister Lydia Namazzi Sekatawa succumbed to cancer in spite of the best efforts by doctors at Nsambya hospital to save her life. A month earlier, the lead doctor, seeing her state of cancer was on course to becoming terminal, recommended medical marijuana to act as painkiller as well as stress reliever.

It was, he said, the last resort or else the countdown to her death was inevitable. The only option was to fly her to India and Germany which we did but again we got recommendation to take her to Colorado, USA for medical marijuana which never materialized before she passed away.

Since then, I have advocated the need to research into how medical marijuana could help Ugandan cancer patients from flying abroad for treatment as well as in the manufacture of other related medicines locally.

To my surprise, almost a year on, government granted an Israeli company, Industrial Globus Pharma Uganda Limited, a license to grow medical marijuana in Kasese. This surprise move was reportedly approved by the Uganda Investment Authority, ministry of Health, ministry of Agriculture and the National Drug Authority (NDA). It was like music to my ears and there is no doubt that the Israeli company's decision to come to Uganda is based on Uganda's supreme weather conditions for the marijuana plant to flourish.

Let's not be oblivious of the fact that use of marijuana is prohibited under Ugandan law, which means that the license to grow the plant comes with strict conditions and punitive measures.

But in a new twist, cabinet last week backtracked on the move and some ministers condemned it outright. Instead, cabinet tasked the Health ministry to do more research and provide scientific evidence that marijuana can help treat illnesses, including cancer and HIV/Aids before presenting the findings on May 15.

Anyone who has cared for a cancer patient may have been recommended drugs such as Epidiolex, Sativex or Marinol. These are very expensive drugs whose main content is marijuana.

Firstly, I want to believe that the ministry, along with the regulatory government agencies, did enough research before granting Industrial Globus Pharma Uganda Limited the license.

What is left now is to sensitise the masses about what medical marijuana is all about. There is a very big misconception that marijuana is all about smoking weed; that smoking weed makes people high and, therefore, they become unproductive. This is true to some extent, the same way people consume alcohol and tobacco.

However, there's more to marijuana than being a recreation drug. The marijuana plant is responsible for many painkillers on the market but due to the sensitivity, the public impression is of wasted youth who smoke it. Every beer on the market carries the tag that 'too much consumption of alcohol is bad for your health' but beer companies rank amongst the top taxpayers for Uganda. It is also well-documented that having unprotected sex increases the risk of HIV/Aids but that has never stopped people from being reckless.

However, government's efforts to sensitize the public about HIV/Aids have created awareness that has seen a drop in new infections. Unlike alcohol or HIV/Aids, marijuana comes with an economic value to it that may not only improve the country's tax base; it would also reduce unemployment on top of improving our fragile health sector.

Globally, the marijuana industry is estimated in billions of dollars but most of it remains undocumented due to smuggling. In essence, marijuana comes with risks of abuse but that doesn't make it satanic. Its medical advantages far outweigh the risks and, with strict regulation, it could trigger an economic upsurge for the country.

Let's agree that the same way government regulates the sale of alcohol, parliament can enact a law to regulate the growing and consumption of marijuana while at the same time ensuring that the country gets much-needed revenue from exports.

World over, marijuana has been given a human face. For instance, Uruguay legalised it in 2013 and statistics there show there has not been a significant increment in abuse of the drug.

Other countries such as Peru, Spain, the Netherlands and South Africa allow the personal use of marijuana as long as it is not for sale. We can even borrow a leaf from Lesotho, which last year became the first African country to legalise medicinal marijuana cultivation but with strict conditions that barred small-scale farmers.

So, let's not bury our heads from the reality and create awareness that would enlighten the whole country.

The author is a concerned citizen

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