Cannabis for medical use in Nigeria: Seeing beyond the ‘madness’

In early March 2023, lawmakers in Nigeria’s House of Representatives killed a bill that sought to amend the law establishing the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency or NDLEA and give it powers to “grant and revoke licenses for the cultivation of cannabis plants for medical purposes.” 

The bill, sponsored by Benjamin Kalu, Olumide Babatunde, and Miriam Onuoha, was meant to usher Nigeria into a new phase of cannabis decriminalisation that will allow Africa’s largest economy, struggling from revenue shortages, to take its bite from the $13.8 billion medical marijuana global market. 

Akin Alabi, a member of the House Representatives, posted on Twitter that another lawmaker had asked him, “Why will we be supporting something that is making people mad?” And that seems to capture the perception of most of the nation’s lawmakers, who see the plant as a drug “making people mad” and seeing nothing else.

This perception led the House to step down the bill for “further consultation”. While many people, like the lawmakers, only view cannabis through the lens of ‘highness’, is there more to it? There certainly is.

Medical Cannabis: What is it, and how does it work? 

Cannabis for medical use is not a new concept; medical cannabis is a collection of derivatives from the cannabis sativa plant used for medical purposes. The Cannabis sativa plant contains over 540 chemicals and about 100 active compounds, with delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) being the most widely recognised.

THC is what is responsible for the ‘highness’ because it produces a drug-like effect. CBD, on the other hand, does not have psychoactive effects; but it is known for its anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, and anti-seizure properties – the reason it is used for medicine.

Madness or opportunity for wealth?

The global medical cannabis industry is a rapidly growing market, expected to reach $197 billion by 2028, according to a report by Fortune Business Insight.

Legalising medical cannabis in many countries has opened up new opportunities for research and development and the production and distribution of medical cannabis products. The industry has attracted many investors, including pharmaceutical companies, cannabis growers, and technology companies.

A 2020 report by Prohibition Partners, a group advocating for the legalisation of cannabis for its health and economic benefits, projected that Nigeria’s market share of the cannabis industry would reach $3.7 billion in 2023 (more than eight times the $458 million the government attracted in 2022) if the country utilises its advantage of “affordable land, low-cost labour, and experienced agriculture workforce “to lure local startups and foreign companies looking to expand.”

Unfortunately, that has not happened as the country continues approaching conversations about cannabis with close-mindedness. 

Former Ondo State governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, understood the potential of the cannabis industry. As governor of the state with a large expanse of underground cannabis farms, he constantly pressed the federal government to legalise cannabis.

“Products with extract of Cannabis Sativa are already in our pharmaceutical sales outlets across the country. They are being imported with foreign exchange and sold at exorbitant prices with additional but avoidable stress on our naira,” the former governor said in June 2021.

Currently, Nigeria cultivates at least 133,500 plots of cannabis in six states, all happening underground and adding nearly nothing to the economy. The NDLEA has reportedly been setting fire to farms worth thousands of dollars. Yet, the underground cannabis farming business is so lucrative that farmers are abandoning cocoa planting for cannabis. 

Nigeria can benefit from the medical cannabis industry by tapping into this growing market by legalising medical cannabis and strengthening the NDLEA, as a regulator, with the legal framework to regulate the cultivation, production, and distribution of cannabis. This will open the country up for investment in the industry, create jobs, and generate revenue. 

By legalising medical cannabis, a country can provide patients access to safe and effective treatments, reducing the need for more expensive and invasive procedures. This can result in significant cost savings for patients and the healthcare system.

As the market for medical cannabis expands, and Nigeria is one of the largest potential markets, legalising medical cannabis could translate into increased job opportunities, tax revenue, and overall economic growth. 

Nigeria could also start its journey of displacing South Africa, where President Cyril Ramaphosa said he is targetting 130,000 sustainable cannabis and industrial hemp jobs.

The global medical cannabis industry is rapidly growing, and many countries want to enter this space. By legalising medical cannabis, Nigeria can position itself as a critical player in this industry, attracting investment and creating opportunities for international collaboration, research, technological advancements, and innovation.

Another benefit of the medical cannabis industry is its potential to reduce crime and improve public safety. In Nigeria, the illegal cannabis trade is a major source of organised crime and violence. By legalising medical cannabis, Nigeria can control the market, ensure that products are safe, and eliminate the black market, reducing crime and creating a safer, more secure society.

The conversation about legalising cannabis for medical use should happen. Nigerians only hope the lawmakers do not close their minds to superior logic, for that would be madness. Yes, madness!

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