When Reps swam against the tide to legalise Cannabis 

On Thursday last week, Nigeria’s House of Representatives listed for second reading, a Bill seeking to legalise the cultivation and certain kinds of use of Cannabis in the country. It was however stepped down over divergent views on the proposal. JOSHUA EGBODO writes on the drama therein 

The Bill

The now controversial Bill in the opinion of many as introduced, sought to amend the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) Act 2004, to confer additional responsibility, as well as power on the agency to grant and revoke where necessary, licenses for the cultivation of Cannabis for medicinal purposes. 

It was earlier listed for consideration in preparation for second reading last Wednesday, but was stepped down when attention of the House was drawn to the fact that there was another one on related subject matter, thus the need for consolidation. 

Spokesman of the House, Hon. Benjamin Kalu and his colleague, Olumide Osoba jointly sponsored the initial Bill, while the other was by Hon. Miriam Onuoha titled: “Bill for an Act to Decriminalise the Growth and Use of Cannabis, to Establish a System for the Registration and licensing of Cannabis Growers”. Both were eventually consolidated.

Promoting the proposal

On Thursday, when the consolidation had been perfected, the lead sponsor, Kalu in presenting its general principles reeled out the multiple benefits of the proposed legislation before his colleagues, citing some medicinal benefits of cannabis, which he said include pain control, weight loss, and cancer treatment amongst others.

“There are plethora of medicinal benefits attributed to cannabis. It is however primarily, used for pain control – chronic pain – the kind of pain for which opioids are prescribed. It is also said to be a tremendous muscle relaxant and with the ability to lessen the tremors from Parkinson’s disease. It can also be used to manage nausea and weight loss, as well as treat glaucoma”, he said. 

Further justifying good reasons behind the move, he said that on the global scene, “There are progressive efforts towards decriminalizing and legalizing its cultivation and use for medicinal purposes. It is legalized in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus for use in management of cancer patients. In Czech Republic, Denmark and Estonia, it is used (with a special permit) and in Finland it is used under license.   

“Furthermore it is used with prescription in Georgia, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Netherlands and Norway”.

He summed his argument up with the assertion that the suggestion was just seeking to establish and regulate the safe use of cannabis as a source of medicinal treatment in medical centers, adding that Nigerians should not be living in denial on the benefits while they go outside the country to import same in medical form. He pointed out that there would not be any huge financial implications on the enactment of the law, since the NDLEA was already an existing agency of the Federal Government.

But the kicks

With Benjamin Kalu’s submissions, the stage was set for other members’ opinion on the Bill. The first salvo was from Hon. Nicholas Ossai, Chairman Agreements and Treaties Committee of the House, who noted that firstly, Nigeria was a signatory to the international treaty of nations on the ban of cannabis. He also questioned the authenticity of the statement that cannabis could cure cancer and other ailments, or that it could be effectively regulated when allowed to be administered as proposed.

Speaker of the House, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila who presided over the session, in his intervention however reminded Ossai of the standard practice that where there are conflicts of laws and treaties, laws always take preeminence, especially when the treaties are not fully domesticated in the concerned country. 

He argued that the bill should be a allowed to scale through second reading since it was not seeking to repeal any existing law, and more that experts in the medical field would have the opportunity to make informed inputs on the claimed benefits at the public hearing on it.

In his submissions, Hon. Uzoma Nkem-Abonta urged a balance in the passage of the Bill as the motive of the sponsors might be just, but that lapses in its implementation could be harmful to society, especially if not effectively regulated and left open to abuses. He therefore advised on deep experts’ insights at the public hearing.

Deputy Speaker of the House, Hon. Ahmed Idris Wase on his part clearly opposed the proposal, expressing worry that if the legislation is used to legalise cannabis, it could be exploited to abuse the drug, especially among the youths. Wase warned further that Nigeria could be turned to a drug baron country, citing Columbia which is battling the menace today as an example.

Toeing the same line of argument, Chief Whip, Hon. Mohammed Tahir Monguno stated that the articles of the bill seemed vague and in some instances ambiguous, a situation he warned could make it highly susceptible to manipulations by abusers of cannabis.

Gbajabiamila had in another bid to save the day, observed that the very fact that the drugs were being abused should be a good reason for regulation, as being proposed in the bill, but the later contributors yet appeared adamant.

A disappointed Kalu

When offered the opportunity to respond to issues raised by his colleagues during the debate under his right of reply, Kalu disappointingly blamed the consolidation of the different Bills, which he said distorted the original intention of that which he jointly sponsored with a colleague. Watching the mood of his colleagues, he subsequently requested that the bill be stepped down to give the sponsors room for further consultations, and this was granted by leave of the House.

NDLEA’s perspective 

As public debates over the propriety and future fate of the bill lasts, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency over the weekend expressed commendations for those members of the House, who disagreed with three of their colleagues over the consolidated bill seeking to legalise the cultivation, sale and use of cannabis, also known as marijuana, for commercial purposes.

Chairman of the NDLEA, Brigadier General Buba Marwa (rtd) lauded the legislators for rejecting what he described as “another attempt to push through a bill to decriminalise cannabis cultivation, sale and use in Nigeria on the floor of the Green Chamber of the National Assembly”.

According Marwa, history would never forget those who stood with parents to protect them and their children from any legislation that would turn Nigeria into a nation of junkies and criminals, which would in turn amount to taking just a step forward and 10 steps backward. He specifically made reference to a 2018 drug survey figure of 10.6 million Nigerians abusing cannabis alone as enough to sound the alarm bell against such a move.

“In the final analysis, drug abuse is indeed one of the factors fueling insecurity. As such, Nigeria cannot afford to permit the cultivation, sale and use of the most abused illicit drug under whatever guise,” he was quoted in media reports following the development on floor of the House of Representatives last week.

A dead proposal?

From all indications, expert opinion seemed to be more against the proposal, which was not the first in the House of Representatives. A similar bill on cannabis was up in the 8th assembly, and suffered failure due to majority of opposing views.

Beyond that, followers of processes in the House are pointing out how such controversial legislative proposals often disappear after being stepped down in like manner. The grazing reserves (RUGA) settlements, the compulsory vaccination and powers of the federal government to convert any private property to an isolation centre in events of outbreak of contagious diseases, and most recently, the Water Resources bills were usual examples cited.

Analysts are therefore doubtful if the cannabis legalisation bill will resurface, at least within the fast running out tenure of the the life of the current assembly of the House. A new assembly (10th) will be in place in about the second week of June. Would last week’s development thus represent a dead signal for the bill? Only time will tell.