By Gwada Ogot
Africa’s official position on marijuana is unanimous — banned. Unofficially, however, its use is generally widespread, a contradiction which presents antagonistic polarities see-sawing between condescending condemnations and prohibitions, and defiant cultural acceptance and use.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated Africa’s cannabis production at 10,500 tonnes in 2005, or 25 per cent of the world’s 42,000 tonnes. The American continent accounted for 46 per cent of global production.
According to the UN World Drug Report 2014, users aged 18 plus number between 119 and 224 million people, with Iceland leading in consumption, ahead of Zambia, the US, Italy, New Zealand, and Nigeria, in that order.
With the exception of Canada, US, Spain and Jamaica, use in the other top 10 countries remains prohibited.
Today, 23 countries have decriminalised marijuana, among them, Argentina, Russia, Canada, Switzerland, and Portugal, with full legalisation in the Netherlands, North Korea, Uruguay and Nicaragua.
Not one is an African country.
In the United States, California became the first state to legalise marijuana in 1996.
Presently, 23 other states, including Florida, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, DC, have to varying levels, either decriminalised or fully legalised possession and use.
Only four states, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Louisiana, still prohibit marijuana, but are nonetheless relaxing laws.
Marijuana was first banned in 1913, in the US, after over 5,000 years of use. Beyond reasons of racial bigotry, class and cultural sensitivities, and sexual apprehension, medical reasons were merely alluded to as the then official view illustrates below.
“Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians, and entertainers. Their satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others. Marijuana is an addictive drug, which produces in its users, insanity, criminality, and death, and makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
Attributed to Harry J. Anslinger, then head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the original drug enforcement agency), the man who led the push to illegalise marijuana in all the states in the 1930s — it reflects the sour race relations, marked by the compounded beatings, burnings, brandings, acid attacks and lynching of coloured folk by the revived Ku Klux Klan.
In a question and answer paper, entitled, “How Did Marijuana Become Illegal in the First Place?”, published on October 9, last year, Dr Malik Burnett and Amanda Reiman, recall absurd claims made during hearings on marijuana law in the 1930s, about ability to cause men of colour to become violent and solicit sex from white women, an imagery that became the backdrop for the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which effectively banned use and sales.
While Anslinger’s records sum up the reigning myopia, from a broader trajectory, the timings of the bans reveal the extraordinary nature of the times, the first, just before the First World War. The second was at the final spiral towards the great depression and the Second World War.
Coupled with ignorance, these happenings climaxed white America’s racist anxieties, particularly when Mexican immigrants began pouring into West South Central states like Texas and Louisiana following the Mexican Revolution, and upsetting cultural balances, especially through the use of cannabis as a calmant and medication.
Thematically, Anslinger’s sexualising, negronising and Mexicanising of marijuana smoking wasn’t new. In 1875, San Francisco had banned opium smoking in dens, and of the reasons bandied was them accusation that Chinese men were seducing white women.
A New York Times article entitled, “The Federal Marijuana Ban Is Rooted in Myth and Xenophobia”, published on July 29, last year, reiterates the motivating theme of racism, citing legal scholars Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread in their authoritative account, The Marijuana Conviction.
“The drug’s popularity among minorities and other groups practically ensured that it would be classified as a ‘narcotic’, attributed with addictive qualities it did not have, and set alongside far more dangerous drugs like heroin and morphine.”
Asking Africa to legalise marijuana, and open exploitation of the huge market potential is — in our world that defines more by choices than restrictions — not only a realistic and timely call, but one that also enables Africa to self-liberate from Anslinger’s ethnic shenanigans.
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