The first thing that comes into mind when a Kenyan hears the word bhang is drug abuse or smuggling of narcotic drugs but the push to legalize it is increasingly getting traction in the country.
Bhang or cannabis sativa is listed as an illegal drug in the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Control Act Section 3 (2) (a) of 1994 and revised in 2022 but efforts have been made to legalize it for industrial and commercial use.
Over the years, the drug has acquired a bad reputation due to its use as an intoxicant and the focus on its medicinal properties has been lost but proponents argue that its medicinal value is high and can be used to arrest many diseases and ailments.
“From 1963 the Kenyan government has laid down measures to ensure that there is no issue with pertaining drugs and substance in Kenya but bhang is not a drug but a herb and it should be categorized as such and the current government should legalize it through an act of parliament because it is beneficial commercially,” Caleb Otieno, a youth leader in Kilifi County, said.
Scientists have discovered that bhang, like any other drug, if used wrongly can cause long-term harmful effects on the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system but with controlled use, it offers medicinal value since paste made from the buds and leaves of the Cannabis sativa plant, is typically added to food and drinks and can protect the human body against pain, muscle spasms, seizures, nausea, and vomiting.
It is also used for treating digestive issues, headaches, pains, and anxiety and brings relief in health issues like nerve pain, arthritis pain, insomnia, and piles.
Otieno wants Members of the National Assembly to introduce a Bill in parliament that will categorize bhang as an agricultural cash crop.
“We have been using Methadone (Medical Assisted Therapy, MAT) to treat illicit drug addicts but it is expensive and its supply is limited but we can offer bhang as a substitution since it is not addictive,” he added.
According to Otieno, a 90-kilogram bag of bhang has a street value of Ksh1.3 million compared to maize which fetches Ksh4,000 for the same quantity and if the country legalizes it for sale to foreign nations it can help the government to earn billions of shillings in revenue every year.
“I appeal to the government to fund research on bhang and we benchmark in countries that have legalized the drug. I talked to the late Kibra MP Ken Okoth when he visited Kilifi in 2014 and he took it to parliament and the Roots party leader George Wajakoyah brought the matter up during campaigns and I support him fully,” he said.
During the campaign period, Wajakoyah campaigned on the platform of legalizing bhang, a move that attracted support and criticism in equal measure and according to the presidential candidate, the country stood a chance to be financially stabilized if it embraced commercialization of bhang.
Otieno invited religious leaders to understand the benefits of bhang and 'stop misleading Kenyans'.
“I want religious leaders to accept the fact that some of the medicines we use in our hospitals are products of bhang and they should not interpret it as allowing drug abuse because the law if passed will specify its use and I rule out recreational use," Otieno added.
The National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada) said in a statement recreational and commercial trade of bhang is prohibited.
In Kenya, cannabis remains the drug of choice amongst narcotic users with data from a national survey conducted in 2017 showed that at least one per cent of the country’s population aged between 15-65 years are current users of cannabis and another survey conducted in 2019 to assess emerging trends in the abuse of drugs and substances showed overwhelming evidence of the abuse of cannabis in the form of cookies, candies and other forms of confectioneries.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) had also recommended the lifting of cannabis sativa from illicit substances but the Kenyan government rejected the idea pointing out that the drug is a harmful substance.
The WHO submitted eight proposals including, the recommendation to delete extracts and tinctures of Cannabis from Schedule I of the 1961 Convention and a recommendation to remove from international control products containing 0.2 per cent of Delta 8 THC.