Thursday, 24 April 2014

Why not legalise cannabis? It is medicine

This Sunday had me reflecting on why Christmas is celebrated more than Easter, yet the latter is the basis of Christianity while the former is by all indications, not even in the bible. I know this is a debate that can never be held rationally, most of us Ugandans hyperventilate when beliefs are questioned.

So, I turned my attention to something that struck me more about this Easter than those religious arguments. What was kind of unique about this Sunday is that it fell on April 20, code-named variously as 420, 4:20, 4/20, which is a kind of celebration for another kind of movement.

April 20 has become “Easter” or “Christmas” for cannabis fans, while several use it as an occasion to get high, it is point for those who campaign for its legalisation. The short of the long story behind 420 is that a group of students in California, calling themselves The Waldos, used to meet at a particular spot at 4:20pm to go and search for an abandoned field of marijuana. While they were not successful , the legend spread and eventually given a spin by The Grateful Dead, a popular rock band. Of course, there are many versions to the 4/20 story.

In a small way, weird some would say, I would also agitate for legislation. And I must add a strong emphasis here, for STRICTLY medicinal purposes and possibly industrial use but not recreation.

Some would ask, does cannabis, or marijuana as it is more popularly known, have any use apart from intoxication? Yes, it does.

You see, what gives the high is technically known as tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC in short. It is just one of the more than 400 known compounds in the plant. But I am not an expert of any sort, so I hope the testimony of Dr Sanjay Gupta will add weight to my thrust. He is a neurosurgeon and medical correspondent for CNN, a critic of medical marijuana who authored a 2009 article “Why I would Vote No on Pot” in TIME magazine.

By 2013, he had made the documentaries, Weed and Weed 2, and written an article on CNN blogs, in which he explores the medical properties of cannabis. To quote him: “We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologise for my own role in that. I hope this article and upcoming documentary will help set the record straight.” Later, he continues, “While investigating, I realised something else quite important. Medical marijuana is not new, and the medical community has been writing about it for a long time. There were in fact hundreds of journal articles, mostly documenting the benefits.”

So, what are these benefits? Cannabis can be used to treat cancer, because it kills off those cells. It relieves pains, relax muscles and its different compounds act on the body differently. So, in addition to cancer, it helps with seizures, migraines (types of headaches), Glaucoma (an eye disease) multiple sclerosis (which affects the nervous system), Alzheimer’s (which causes memory loss), Pre-menstrual Syndrome (the women would know this), HIV/Aids and disorders like ADHD, and Crohn’s syndrome, an inflammatory bowel disease.

Many times, there is news of police raids on marijuana gardens, some of which the owners say they use to treat cattle and poultry. Silently, I wonder at this waste of resources.

I say we, Uganda, should follow the example of Uruguay, which legalised growing, sale and smoking of marijuana in 2013 to curb the illicit distribution and sale. But in our case, let us restrict this to medical purposes. And I could not agree more, as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime notes, “It is important to distinguish between users of scientifically‐approved, legitimate cannabis‐based medications and those who seek to use “medical” cannabis as a shield for legitimising general cannabis use.”

Imagine Uganda tapping into the growing international market for medical marijuana, which is worth billions of dollars annually. Making an anti-homosexuality law in face of international pressure, threats and ridicule showed Uganda is capable of some bold moves. Let us legalise cannabis, it is medicine.

An edited version of this was published by Daily Monitor newspaper