By David Julian Wightman
When David Livingstone explored these lands in 1855 he recorded that cannabis was used by local peoples to increase work efficiency, as a sexual stimulant, and for bravery in battle.
Within a century, however, cannabis was transformed on a global scale, from a benign plant used as medicine and for fibre into an international outlaw, the “demon weed”, surrounded by ignorance and fear.
The crop, traditionally grown as Livingstone found, is now a leading cause of arrest and incarceration in Zambia, despite the fact that it had been used in this country and throughout southern Africa for generations before it was banned by colonial rulers.
Today’s renewed persecution of pot in Zambia comes at a time when increasing numbers of countries and states are legalizing or decriminalizing cannabis for medical benefits and also recreational use.
Currently, medicinal marijuana is legal or decriminalized in 30 countries while recreational use is legal in 5 countries and decriminalized in at least 20 countries. According to the UN, cannabis has become the world’s most popular illicit substance, used by as many as 225 million people globally.
The plant has been cultivated and used by humans for at least 8000 years. It was distributed along the Silk Road and traded as a commodity alongside salt and tea. Eventually it reached Africa, probably brought by Arab traders bringing seed more than 1000 years ago. In the 1500s Portuguese explorers described cannabis cultivation throughout southern Africa.
Before the 20th Century cannabis was legal and widely used for medicine and fibre. The first edition of the King James Bible, in 1611, was printed on paper made from hemp, the non-psychoactive variety of cannabis. By the mid-1700s most of the American colonies had laws that compelled farmers to grow cannabis or risk imprisonment. George Washington grew it, while fellow president Thomas Jefferson obtained potent strains from China.
Despite the country’s early acceptance and reliance on cannabis, America was largely responsible for criminalising its cultivation and use. The first anti-cannabis laws originated in the United States in 1913, and it seems that this was largely due to anti-Mexican prejudice. The Mexican word for cannabis, marihuana, was used by opponents to demonise the drug. This prejudice led to an environment of racism, ignorance, and corporate and political manipulation regarding the plant.
By the 1920s many states had enacted anti-cannabis laws, which mainly targeted the Latino and African-American populations. The criminalization of cannabis became caught up in the notorious American era of alcohol prohibition—which also saw the emergence of organized crime. In 1930 the emergence of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created out of the ashes of Prohibition.
A former assistant prohibition commissioner, Harry J. Anslinger, became head of the FBN. The ambitious and ruthless Anslinger used cannabis prohibition to build the FBN and his personal career by employing racism and yellow journalism to further his cause. In this he was supported by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who openly hated Mexicans.
Hearst published sensational stories about Hispanics to sell his newspapers, and approved of suppressing cannabis in order to maintain his business interests in newsprint paper (it is alleged that he feared competition from hemp paper). Other industrialists, including the Du Pont chemical company, were eager to suppress cannabis as competition for their synthetic nylon, as well as other products including oil, cotton, alcohol and pharmaceutical drugs.
The final straw was the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, drafted in secret by Anslinger and colleagues, which made cannabis illegal in the US. The Act was passed against the advice of the American Medical Association and without public discussion. As a direct result of that piece of legislation, more than 20 million Americans—most of them poor people of colour—have since been arrested and imprisoned for marijuana-related offences.
Many societies around the globe either chose or were pressured into following suit and criminalising cannabis. Zambia is among those countries. The anti-cannabis laws in this country were inherited from colonial law, and they have not been revisited since Independence. As such, Zambia is a signatory to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961) and the UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988).
The cost of prohibition in Zambia has been colossal. Accurate statistics are not available to indicate how many Zambians are currently in prison or are awaiting trial on cannabis-related charges, but reliable estimates are that 1 in 4 inmates in Zambia’s prisons are being held for cannabis.
Between 2014 and 2015, DEC arrested more than 11,200 people on drug charges, the majority of them for cannabis. In 2016 alone, DEC is on track to cage as many as 6000 people for drug offenses, an average of 15 people every single day.
The law denies bail to cannabis offenders, while those charged with violent crimes are not denied bail. The result, on those figures alone, amounts to a mass caging of Zambians, most of whom are peasant farmers or unemployed people, including women and children as young as 11 years old.
The result? This mass jailing of cannabis offenders is causing Zambia to have some of the most overcrowded prisons in the world. At last count in April 2015 there were 18,500 inmates, 40% of them on remand, adding up to an over-capacity rate of close to 300%. Our prison population is reaching record levels of overcrowding, driven by the so-called War on Drugs and the desire of DEC to gain “positive” statistics. This is neither sustainable nor justifiable.
The situation is made sinister by the DEC tactic of encouraging citizens to report on their neighbours. This policy (made clear by the link to “Reporting a Case” on its website main page) is especially troubling since it consumes huge resources, breeds false witness, and turns everyone into potential suspects. Rather than good policy and practice it resembles witch-hunting.
The current global push to re-examine cannabis prohibition rests on increased recognition of the drug’s potential health benefits. According to Dr Lester Grinspoon, Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, cannabis “will one day be seen as a wonder drug, as was penicillin in the 1940s. Like penicillin, herbal marijuana is remarkably non-toxic, has a wide range of therapeutic applications and would be inexpensive if it were legal.”
A similar sentiment comes from the conservative magazine, The Economist: “If cannabis [was] unknown, and bioprospectors were suddenly to find it in some remote mountain crevice, its discovery would no doubt be hailed as a medical breakthrough. Scientists would praise its potential for treating everything from pain to cancer, and marvel at its rich pharmacopoeia—many of whose chemicals mimic vital molecules in the human body.”
Cannabis has been used for medical benefits in different cultures for thousands of years. In recent years multiple studies have produced evidence that marijuana has medical properties capable of treating at least 250 ailments, among them HIV/AIDS, sugar diabetes, epilepsy, glaucoma, alcohol dependence, chronic pain and even impotence.
Contrary to myth, marijuana does not cause lung damage, nor does it cause long-term cognitive impairment of the brain. Neither does cannabis cause cancer; in fact, a number of recent studies suggest that cannabis can actually reduce tumor growth in cancer patients.
Nevertheless, some authorities remain unconvinced of the value of cannabis and the need for legalization or decriminalization. And there are many nations such as Vietnam, Russia, and Saudi Arabia that are unlikely to ever change their hardline policies on cannabis.
Some critics of legalization worry that not enough research has been done on the psychological and behavioural problems associated with cannabis. Even proponents of the drug admit that it should not be consumed by minors (unless in the case of non-psychoactive strains like Charlotte’s Web, currently being used to treat epilepsy in children). Cannabis can also be habit-forming and cause dependence among heavy users.
However, in the mass of new research available, there is simply no evidence to justify the fear and hysteria surrounding cannabis. It is not addictive, nor is it toxic, and it will not make you lazy, crazy, or want to kill someone. No doubt more research is needed, and more medical applications will undoubtedly be found. Some critics and nation states will simply never be swayed by the science, however we should not turn a blind eye to the evidence to spite ourselves.
Those who argue for the legalisation of industrial hemp and marijuana offer an economic argument as well as health benefits. Although the idea in practice needs more research and consideration, legalization could likely create thousands of jobs in agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, research and development, security, transportation and logistics, not to mention taxation.
What is obvious is that Zambia’s continuing criminalization of marijuana is causing the loss of unknown millions in legal and correctional costs, the misery of untold thousands of poor and vulnerable prisoners and their families, and potentially billions of kwacha in revenue and many thousands of jobs.
Consider Zambia’s urgent need of agricultural reform. This sector desperately needs diversification, and there are few crops that could revolutionise agriculture in this country like industrial hemp. It is an excellent source of paper, in fact no plant or tree can provide more paper per acre planted.
And compared to cotton, hemp is 10 times stronger, mildew-resistant, and requires less water, no fertilizer, and almost no labour between sowing and harvesting. Imagine the benefits of hemp manufacture. We could re-tool Mulungushi Textiles to produce hemp chitenges that would last 10 times longer than the ones we currently import from Nigeria or China.
At present, no other country in the region is growing hemp. It may seem unlikely right now, but hemp is arguably the perfect cash crop for Zambia.
In his inauguration address, President Lungu called for the development of “homegrown industries” that can fuel economic growth. Surely we can see that cannabis is one such example of an industry that has been “homegrown” in Zambia for hundreds of years.
Legalization of cannabis can help us transform our agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, and social welfare. Continuing the current policy of prohibition and persecution will only lead to more misery and imprisonment for untold thousands of poor and vulnerable Zambians. For the greater good of our country, it is time to legalize cannabis.