The State of Cannabis Legalization in Kenya

Most African countries have taken a wait-and-see approach in the heated cannabis debate. According to a UN Survey, Africa grows around 10,000 tons of cannabis annually. Lesotho was the first African country to legalize cultivation of cannabis for research and medicinal purposes in 2017. The second was Zimbabwe. Most African countries have stringent laws which can result in jail terms in excess of 15 years for possession of cannabis or its by-products.

Although legalization of cannabis in Africa has not swept the continent by storm, as seen in Europe and North America, the continent is making strides. Verve Dynamic became the first company to receive a license for cultivation of cannabis. After the licensing, several African countries, among them Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, and Morocco have shown interest. In some of these countries, there are vague laws which govern the use, cultivation, and possession of the plant or its by-products. South Africa is a good example where cannabis use outside private premises is legal, but illegal in public. Such regulations can create a lot of grey areas in practical application.

There is a popular question: is cannabis legal in Kenya? Constitutionally, cannabis is illegal in Kenya. But what is the stand of the locals, governments, and lobby groups in legalization of cannabis in Kenya?

Legalization of Cannabis in Kenya

In Kenya, cannabis is locally known as bhang or bhangi. Cannabis was banned in Kenya during the colonial rule in 1914. The criminalization of the plant has stood to date with change of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substance Act in 1994. The jail term for possession of cannabis is 10 years, but only if the accused convinces the court that the drug was meant for personal consumption. If the court is convinced that the drug was meant for sale, the jail term can increase to 20 years.

It is essential to state that marijuana and hemp are used interchangeably. There is no differentiation between the two plants. This fact may make it even more difficult to legalize any strain of cannabis in Kenya.

Proponents of Legalization of Cannabis in Kenya

In the recent past, many prominent leaders have thrown their weight on legalization of cannabis in Kenya. The late Ken Okoth tabled a motion in parliament to legalize cannabis. The bill received support from many leaders including capital city (Nairobi) governor Mike Sonko and representative Esther Passaris. In the 2018 Marijuana Control Bill, Ken Okoth raised 4 points under the Standing Order 114 (1).

  • Decriminalization of  the drug and release of those prosecuted for the use or cultivation of the plant.
  • Provide clear regulations on possession, cultivation, and cannabis trade. The proposal will protect the stakeholders in the industry. The law will also protect minors from exposure to cannabis. The bill resonated, pointing out that allowing cultivation of cannabis will also fetch the government extra revenue from taxes.
  • The industry will also create employment, especially for the Kenyan youth, where most are unemployed.
  • Setting up research centers to help in medical use of the plant and protection of intellectual property.

After the demise of Ken Okoth in July 2019, the Marijuana Bill received a revived support from the leaders.

Opponents to “Bhang” Legalization in Kenya

Cannabis Opposition

Despite the support of cannabis legalization in Kenya, there has been backlash from other groups. The National Agency for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse (NACADA) came out with guns blazing when the motion above was tabled. The lobby group stated that cannabis has detrimental health effects which outweigh the benefits. “Cannabis continues to be classified under Schedule 1 of the Single Convention on Narcotic drugs 1961 as amended by the 1971 Protocol. Schedule 1 drugs are classified as having a high potential for abuse and harm. The Narcotic drugs and Psychotropic substance (Control) Act, 1994 of laws of Kenya is anchored on the UN Single Conventions,” said a statement released by NACADA.

The former NACADA chairman, John Mututho, who is known for his hard stance on drug abuse also opposed the bill to legalize cannabis in Kenya. Other opponents of the bill included religious groups who associated the plant with social evils and negative health effects.

Interest from the International Community

Kenya is located along the equator where climatic conditions favor growth of cannabis all year round. This factor has led to special interest from international cannabis companies.

GoIP Global Inc. stated their intent to grow cannabis in Kenya. In early 2019, the company stated that it had obtained a license to grow cannabis on a 500 acre piece of land. Company chairman, Ike Suton, stated that they had received a 25-year lease term from the Kenyan government to cultivate cannabis. However, the government denied the claims, stating that the plant remains illegal in Kenya.

For a company to grow cannabis in Kenya, they must seek the approval of the Attorney-General to remove the plant from the penal code as an illegal crop. The process makes legalization of the plant tedious and has discouraged some potential investors in the Kenyan cannabis industry.

The Local View of Cannabis Legalization

The local community has loosened their hard stance against legalization of cannabis after explanation of the crop’s potential contribution to the economy and medicine. Previously, the crop was highly demonized and associated with social evils and deterioration of health. Research institutions have put more efforts in demystifying some of the beliefs. The Kenya Hospices and Palliative Care Association is one such organization providing constructive information on this debate. The association proposes constructive dialogue and research to close the gaps and verify cannabis facts.

The Future of Cannabis in Kenya

The country is taking small strides towards legalization of cannabis. The international community has considerable influence on the direction Kenya takes in legalizing the crop. The widespread debate shows a revived interest from leaders, locals, and lobby groups. In conclusion, more research is required to assess the impact of cannabis legalization in all sectors.