Namibia: Govt Split Over Dagga

Medical marijuana.

Government agencies are conflicted over legalising dagga in Namibia, with the national medicine regulator open to the plant's use if the law is changed.

The police are at the forefront of those opposed to legalisation; the health ministry is somewhere in-between; while the Namibia Medicines Regulatory Council (NMRC) feels there must first be an investigation to determine potential demand, and the highs and lows of how it would work.

Official discussions are already underway. Documents reviewed by The Namibian show that NMRC officials and health minister Kalumbi Shangula discussed legalising dagga at a meeting on 11 March 2019.

At that gathering, the regulator indicated a notable increase in applications to use cannabis.

Although the cultivation of cannabis for medical, industrial or recreational use is unlawful in Namibia, the Medicines and Related Substances Control Act, 2003 provides for people to apply for a licence to cultivate cannabis.

The council, however, expressed concern over the policing of cannabis cultivation facilities.

"Council will not take this issue in isolation as there is other legislation that needs to be amended if cannabis is to be legalised. Legally, if there is no collective decision, individuals can challenge that the act is not wholly implemented," the council said.

At the meeting, the NMRC told Shangula that Namibia is not ready to legalise the cultivation and usage of cannabis in the country.

According to documents seen by The Namibian, Shangula particularly wanted to know whether the extent of the demand is known.

"The chairperson of the NMRC indicated that anecdotally, there is a growing demand. [He said] clinical practice sees a significant proportion of patients who use cannabis off label for various conditions, such as anxiety, pain and some complex neurological conditions," read the minutes.

Shangula is also said to have rejected the council's request to stop all applications for cultivation licences.

According to the minutes, he particularly wanted to know why the council was insisting on an embargo.

The NMRC registrar at that point interjected, saying: "It is to make everyone aware that the council is not looking into the issue of granting licences for the time being, and therefore no applications should be submitted".

A document reviewed by The Namibian shows that the NMRC continues to receive applications from people seeking licences to cultivate cannabis for medical and industrial use.

Statistics from the council show that the council received five applications in 2018 to cultivate cannabis in Namibia.

The council resolved at the meeting with the health minister that an investigation needs to be commissioned to look into the extent of cannabis demand on the Namibian market.

Health executive director Ben Nangombe told The Namibian that the ministry will be guided by the outcome of consultations that are scheduled to take place.

"We will be guided by consultations that are made. If a matter is taken up and passed in parliament, as a ministry, we will abide by such decision. As a democracy, we must give the people what they want, provided the necessary stakeholders have been consulted," he stated.

Pro and anti-cannabis legalisation movements have gone public in recent weeks, calling on the government to address their needs.

They argue that the cash-strapped state could make millions of dollars annually by legalising and taxing marijuana similar to alcohol, reduce arrest rates, and provide options to people suffering from chronic medical conditions.

The National Assembly is currently considering a petition by the Ganja Users of Namibua (GUN), who marched to parliament last month.

GUN's secretary general, Borro Ndungula, told The Namibian yesterday that concerns around the legalisation of dagga are far-fetched, and is being used to suppress users.

Ndungula said the regulation of cannabis is not as difficult as it is made out to be because "it can be regulated the same way alcohol is regulated".

He, however, noted that GUN is worried about the prevalence of drugs at schools.

"We are worried about drugs at school. Parents should play a bigger role during the upbringing of their children to curb these problems. The police must also tell us what type of drugs are more prevalent at schools, instead of always blaming cannabis," he stressed.

The activist also blamed politicians for not understanding the laws.

"They [politicians] do not know what they are doing because they are using outdated laws. Their understanding of cannabis is shocking. Cannabis is not only about smoking; you can get more out of it by eating or drinking it," he added.

Once legalised, Ndungula wants all cannabis offenders serving jail time to be released.

The NMRC's registrar, Johannes Gaeseb, yesterday said they are in the process of appointing a consultant who will ensure that the laws are harmonised in order to avoid a situation whereby the council issues a trading licence, and then the holder ends up being arrested because other laws still criminalise cannabis possession and/or use.

Not everyone agrees that cannabis is a productive business avenue for Namibia.

Those opposed, like police inspector general Sebastian Ndeitunga, associate cannabis with detrimental activities, which could lead to social decay.

He told The Namibian this week that legalising dagga is not a priority for the country right now, stressing that violence and theft are often traits associated with marijuana and other drug addicts, and fears the worst if its use is legalised.

Church groups have also been outspoken in recent weeks against cannabis being legalised. They feel while it may look like a potential money-maker for the state, the costs of legalisation may outweigh the benefits.

Critics also cautioned that legalising cannabis will be expensive and has costs -- particularly in the areas of implementation, regulations, law-enforcement, workforce development, healthcare and education -- that may gobble up those revenues, and eat further into an already teetering national economy.

Some Namibians have looked abroad for legal access to cannabis.

The state-owned New Era newspaper last month reported that the Lesotho government has granted Namibian businessman Knowledge Katti and his Mosotho partner Thabo Ntai a 10-year licence to cultivate, manufacture and supply cannabis, in line with the kingdom's laws.

The licence, granted in 2018, also allows the company - Lecana (Pty) Ltd - to import and export the drug.

Globally, medicinal marijuana is big business.

BBC reported last year that Lesotho is aiming to make money from the booming medicinal marijuana industry - although illicit trade in the drug for recreational use is rife in the mountainous country.

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