BusinessDay

When ‘grass is greener’

‘Grass is greener’ is the title of a film that is currently running on the streaming service Netflix.

It is a documentary on the story of Cannabis, a substance known by many different names all over the world. In Nigeria, such names include ‘Igbo’ and ‘Nigerian National Grass’ – the latter being a provocatively endearing term coined by the late Afrobeat titan Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

The active ‘intoxicant’ of the cannabis plant is Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), though it contains several other compounds, including some that are useful in medical and herbal preparations.

Controversy attends any discussion of cannabis in Nigeria that attempts to paint it as anything other than a clear and present danger to society, especially the youths.

The documentary ‘Grass is greener’ has a narrative that ties the politics of crime and punishment which surrounds ‘weed’ with the travails of black people in American society and the growth of Jazz and other genres of ‘black’ music, such as Rap, R&B, and Reggae. It points out that virtually all the major icons in the history of Jazz music were regular consumers of cannabis. Duke Ellington. Louis Armstrong. Fats Waller.

The ‘War on Drugs’ – a major preoccupation of American Presidents from the times of Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan, is seen as a convenient vehicle for the perpetuation of racial discrimination and oppression. The ‘War’ which purported to be based on scientific evidence of the harm caused to the individual and to society by cannabis, is seen as having actually been a way to counter the gains of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and to victimize young activists on University campuses who were agitating against the Vietnam War.

The ‘Just Say No’ campaign of the Reagan era was accompanied by tough new laws imposing mandatory prison sentences for possession of even the smallest quantities of cannabis.

The upshot of such extreme criminalization was that hundreds of thousands of people, predominantly young black men, ended up in prison for long periods. Already disadvantaged, often with poor education and coming from difficult, underserved neighbourhoods with poor schools, little employment prospects, and high crime rates, most of them would never achieve effective reintegration into society.

Viewpoints and social attitudes have changed over the past one hundred years, at least in the Western world.

The present reality in the USA is that more than half of the population either have taken cannabis at least once or see its use as an innocuous habit akin to drinking alcohol. The upshot is that in many states, cannabis has been decriminalized. A burgeoning industry is growing around it, and many people are investing large amounts of money in cultivating the plant and converting it into the various modalities in which it is consumed. There is a big and ever-growing market for ‘edibles’, for example. Cannabis is put into cakes, cookies, drinks, and sweets.

Part of the beef of the documentary makers is that most of the people who are now profiting from a legitimized, thriving cannabis industry are not the black Americans whose lives have been damaged by the draconian laws and selective law enforcement, but white entrepreneurs who are able to raise the capital to produce on an industrial scale.

What is the science around cannabis? What is its present situation locally?

One of the common worries of Nigerian parents, when they send their children to University in places such as Canada or the United Kingdom, is the knowledge that cannabis is widely available, and frequently experimented with, among students in those places, and that the innocent boy from Lagos or Ibadan is likely to join his friends and taste the substance at least once, possibly several times. Cannabis use in those countries, even on a regular basis, is not regarded as an illness justifying intervention, unless accompanied by evidence of mental disturbance. Even then, worried parents cannot simply bundle a teenager to hospital and insist he is treated unless there is evidence that he constitutes a danger to himself or other people. It is a scary scenario that has seen some Nigerian parents who live in the UK ‘tricking’ their troubled teen-and-twenty offspring back home to Nigeria where they can be ‘strong-armed’ into treatment programmes to try to break the habit.

It would cause anxiety to many parents to know that the danger is not just in these libertarian societies but is right here at home, too. Cannabis is not only home-grown and smoked in the countryside; cannabis ‘edibles’ is gradually becoming a staple in parties in the circles of the young and hip on University campuses and many of the cities of Nigeria.

What is the Science on the subject?

Parents and advocates often find it difficult to have a rational conversation with younger persons because they simply deny and shut them out.

Does cannabis cause mental illness?

Without a doubt, some people who are vulnerable to mental illness will develop symptoms of illness by taking even small amounts of the drug. And some people develop an acute illness by taking unaccustomed large amounts of the drug.

The flip side that needs to be acknowledged, however, is that most people who take the drug, whether in Kalakuta Republic or a Jazz Bar in Harlem, and most people who eat ‘edibles’ whether in Lagos or floating on the canal in Amsterdam suffer no provable consequences.

The Felas, Louis Armstrongs, and Bob Marleys, as well as the no-name users who appear to get away scot-free make a law-and-order approach alone futile, and complicate efforts to persuade the young and vulnerable to abstain.

And yet it is true that, for the minority who suffer consequences, the damage can be life-destroying.

Nigerians need to take cognizance of what is happening around the world, but also what is happening in their own neighbourhoods. Every society ultimately must take a stand on ‘grass,’ based on its own values and the realities of its environment.

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