The question, “is marijuana banned in Ghana?”, upon first reading, would seem like a no-brainer.
The 1990 NACOB law, inherited from the PNDC, seems to leave no doubt that it is:
(1) No person shall without lawful authority, cultivate any plant which can be used or consumed as narcotic drug or from which narcotic drug can be extracted.
(2) Any person who contravenes subsection (1) commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of not less than ten years.
(1) For the purposes of this Law narcotic drug means any of the substances specified in the Schedules to this Law whether in its natural or synthetic form.
The above notwithstanding, I wish to argue in this very brief piece that the seeming clarity is as a result of Ghana’s tendency to deal with issues in silos.
Expertise is routinely construed in terms of “specialisms” and issues are then placed in neat boxes such as “law”, “economics”, “security”, etc., with “experts” appointed to superintend over them.
Alas, there are few issues left in this world that can be dealt with that way. The world has become so complex that virtually every issue is “multidisciplinary”, requiring functional knowledge from multiple disciplines for sound analysis. Ghana’s refusal to get with that program has resulted in an increasing spectacle of “hollow expertise” that enlightens no one. And when such attitudes find their way into policymaking, a highly multidisciplinary terrain, bad thinking can be preserved for decades through institutional power.
In the case of narcotics control, the International Narcotics Control Board has itself advised several times that every country should seek to adopt a multidisciplinary approach, which would mean the involvement of perspectives from the security, public health, psychiatry, psychoactive chemistry, deviance psychology, and many other domains when coming up with sound law and policy.
It is clear that this advice has not had the influence it should have in this country because a multidisciplinary analysis of the three-decade NACOB law would show that the section four approach, purporting to ban all plants containing potentially narcotic substances, is scientifically incompetent and perhaps even unenforceable without courting absurdity.
Yet for three decades this is the law that has been used to criminalise the growing of marijuana in Ghana, sending poor rural farmers to jail, in some cases, for the rest of their natural lives.
The marijuana plant contains four hundred major chemical substances, of which only 15% are primary cannabinoids. None of these cannabinoids by themselves are psychotropic compounds. Under the influence of heat, a small proportion of these yield the acids that eventually transform to tetrahydrocannabinol and Tetrahydrocannabivarin, the only important hallucinogens in this complex chemical array.
Even dried and heavily processed marijuana may have only 3.7% THC content. As a percentage of dry, unprocessed, marijuana (with stalks intact), we are talking, in some documented cases, a THC component of about 0.5%. In short, the overwhelming proportion of the marijuana plant is NOT psychotropic or narcotic at all. 99.5% of the composition of some species of the plant can be wholesome in that regard, and serve as raw material for hundreds of industrial uses.
What is curious is that whilst the 1990 NACOB Law bans plants from which any quantity of narcotic can be extracted, the main substances in cannabis that have psychoactive properties – THC and THCV – are not even listed in the schedule to that law, thus leaving the carte blanche ban on plants in the main body of the law as the primary tool of proscription.
Yet, the international anti-narcotics conventions (1961, 1971, & 1988), whose lists of banned substances (schedules and tables) our laws derive scientific legitimacy from, do not list plants or other “whole organisms”. They list chemical and organic compounds all of which are processed formulations requiring human intervention. Below is the extract relevant to the THC from the 1961 convention (as amended by the 1971 protocol).
A similar approach to categorisation is used in the 1988 convention.
Section 126 of our Public Health Act, which deals with narcotics and psychotropics, subscribes fully to the international schedules and tables of proscribed substances, all of which, as already stated, are chemical formulations.
To allow the current NACOB section 4 regime to stand is to clothe NACOB with the power to ban a wide range of plant organisms purely because they could conceivably be transformed to narcotics.
The problem this unrestrained authority poses is that even nutmeg (yes, that aromatic spice) contains myristicin, a precursor compound for a range of psychedelic compounds. Many variants of acacia and mimosa, and a wide range of poppies have substances that are precursors to many of the substances on the controlled lists.
Phytochemical agents used for their anesthetic properties in traditional, herbal-based, healing practices across Ghana and Africa derive their potency precisely from the fact that plants such as thyme and clove can, with the right processing, generate narcotic effects.
A blanket proscription on plants that are potential sources of narcotics would be like banning glue because of its fast-growing status as Ghanaian teenagers’ favourite substance of abuse.
At this point, one may wonder how the marijuana situation has been handled in more sophisticated jurisdictions, and the answer is simple: by regulating policy with science.
In the US, marijuana has been regarded as a subset of the broader cannabis family, and is legally defined as:
“the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”
In essence, it is properly named in the controlled substance act and isolated for consideration on the basis of the targeted compound: THC.
Furthermore, in repeated guidance, the latest in 2018, the US Drug Enforcement Authority has made it clear that:
“Products and materials that are made from the cannabis plant and which fall outside the CSA definition of marijuana (such as sterilized seeds, oil or cake made from the seeds, and mature stalks) are not controlled under the CSA.”
This has widely been interpreted to mean that most parts of the marijuana plant have always been perfectly legal in America, well before the 1950 introduction of cannabis sativa to the controlled list, and since then under permit.
In actual fact, the US has a long history of distinguishing between agricultural hemp and recreational cannabis, a policy only merely reinforced by the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills.
More than 30 countries around the world have industrialised marijuana production in the same way.
The regulation of hemp production has been meant to ensure that the law does not stray from targeting THC to interference with the phytogenetic aspects of hemp production, which is completely outside the authority of the Narcotic law enforcement agencies in many sophisticated jurisdictions around the world.
It is important, nevertheless, not to confuse this longstanding state of affairs with the recent trend of legalisation of marijuana for recreational purposes, which is another debate whose time shall come.
If NACOB and other security agencies in Ghana want to control marijuana as a plant, instead of narrowly targeting THC, and perhaps THCV, then they need to upgrade their scientific understanding and migrate towards another framework of law: biosafety.
Fortunately or unfortunately, there is already a designated entity responsible for this area of law: the National Biosafety Authority, and a whole platoon of protocols to contend with. At the very minimum, NACOB and its sister agencies would have to show that marijuana, as a hemp, and other plants in the broader cannabis family, are in their natural state harmful to the environment, animal or human life.
Considering that hemp production around the world has not revealed any evidence of biosafety concerns, the most likely outcome, should policy to be improved to conform with sound scientific wisdom in a multidisciplinary framework, would be one that repudiates section 4 of the NACOB law and declares regulated marijuana hemp cultivation as perfectly in line with the President of Ghana’s Planting for Foods & Jobs vision.