Kampala — The Health minister, Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, is stuck with 20 bids from companies and individuals competing to secure government clearance to grow and export marijuana for medical purposes.
Senior officials in the Ministry of Health told Daily Monitor that they are stuck with the bids because of lack of regulations governing the undertaking. The ministry is also overwhelmed by the number of ganja planters, both local and foreign, inquiring about the application process and follow-ups.
"Marijuana growing without proper control measures can be dangerous to our youthful population... . already it is the second highest cause for the Butabika [mental rehabilitation] hospital admissions majority of whom are youth. We can't just accept growing [of marijuana]," the State minister for Health, Ms Sarah Opendi warned.
"Why are we having this huge influx of people to our country wanting to grow it here and not any other East African country? We already have laws prohibiting its production without clearance from the ministry, but this law is already being abused. People are growing marijuana under whose authority?" she added.
Dr Aceng, at the weekend, confirmed the scramble for cannabis growing in Uganda and revealed how the number of interested companies has shot up from 14 to 20. She said most of the companies are local owners seeking to tap into the $5b cannabis industry.
The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act 2015 allows cultivation, production and exportation of medical marijuana and mandates the minister to issue written consent for medical marijuana. However, Dr Aceng insists the applications will have to wait for the final decision of Cabinet.
Commenting on health benefits of marijuana, which is one of the terms of reference for the Cabinet sub-committee, Dr Aceng said: "It's true marijuana has medicinal properties but the medical properties are still under research... it has been proven it can be used in reducing pain in cancer patients but even then research is still ongoing... there is also research in areas of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia in cases of epilepsy; it's still undergoing research."
However, the absence of regulations to guide Dr Aceng on marijuana permits has also complicated matters to the extent that the Health minister and Cabinet do not know how to proceed. Some companies have also put pressure on Dr Aceng inquiring what's going on and accused her of creating a monopoly.
The government has already licensed Industrial Hemp (U) Ltd to grow and export medical marijuana. The company is currently working together with Pharma Limited, one of the biggest Israeli cannabis firm on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.
They have invested $360m (about Shs1.3 trillion) and established marijuana farms in Hima, Kasese.
Sources told Daily Monitor that before Cabinet discussed the deals, Dr Aceng wanted to request Internal Security Organisation (ISO) and Internal Affairs ministry to conduct due diligence on some of the companies. But after consulting internally, the minister abandoned the move and ran to Cabinet. She reportedly feared a "risk" of having 20 companies growing cannabis in various parts of the country without collective responsibility.
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Although the law does not provide for Cabinet clearance/ consultation, the Heath minister has internally halted issuance of written consent to potential ganja planters until Cabinet pronounces itself on the matter. The minister's hands are, however, tied given the fact that the law does not have a limit on the number of companies to be authorised to grow medical marijuana.
When this matter came to Cabinet recently, President Museveni established a five-member Cabinet team to study the health benefits of medical marijuana and the financial aspects of the business. The team met on Friday but agreed to meet again before they present their report to Cabinet on May 15.
What others say
Although the law provides for growing and exportation of marijuana under licence, Prof Ogenga Latigo, a commercial farmer, urged government to go slow on the venture. He wondered why Cabinet should waste time talking about marijuana instead of focusing on 68 per cent of poor Ugandans who are stuck in subsistence farming.
"If a country was benefiting from money laundering, should we also follow the same because it presents an opportunity? Prof Latigo, who is also the Agago County MP, wondered. "This is a fundamental question. We are not desperate. Why do we need marijuana yet we are about to extract oil? Already alcohol has become a real menace and then you want to bring marijuana, what's your intention? We are surrounded by countries that can't feed themselves but what have we done to invest in agriculture?" he said.
Dr Ben Manyindo, the executive director of Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), said: "Any developments in this area without adequate controls will be a disaster to the country. There must be a law or regulations that addresses this industry making [the companies] accountable for any irregularities or violation of the rules. There must be traceability of produce originating from Uganda, among others."
Mr Baliddawa Kafuufu, former MP who participated in passing of the law, said: "Any continued procrastination is detrimental not only to the [medical marijuana] investors but also to our economy that desperately needs more foreign exchange earnings."
"There is no longer any logical reason for continuing to deny the investors growing and exporting marijuana," he said.
Scientific study of the chemicals in marijuana, called cannabinoids, has led to approved medications that contain cannabinoid chemicals in pill form. Those backing marijuana also say the plant contains chemicals that may help treat a range of illnesses and symptoms.
1. Industrial Hemp (U) Ltd
2. Together Pharma Ltd
Applied pending licence
3. Natgro Phama (U) Ltd
4. Medraw (U) SMC Ltd
5. Urban Properties (U) Ltd
6. Prime Ranchers
7. Silver Seeds (U) Ltd
8. Dave and Dave Group
9. Seven Blades
10. Cannops Africa
11. Quest Worths International Group
12. Premier Hemp
13.Sativa Agro-tech Ltd
14. Zeus Agro Ltd
15. Owesia U Ltd