NDLEA, Marwa And The Cannabis Controversy

By Bolanle Bolawole

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Although we know it is called Indian hemp, not many will be able to say why this is so. Hemp may not be native to India in the real sense of it. According to Google, the regulation of hemp in India began in the colonial era when cannabis was being restricted across all British colonies starting at the beginning of the 19th Century. In 1894, the British India government reportedly completed a wide-ranging study of cannabis in India.

 Indian hemp may refer to any of various fibre-bearing plants (Apocynum Cannabinum) some of which, like Cannabis indica and Crotalaria juncea, are said to be native to India. Indians used the fibres from the stem to make bags, mats, nets, and cordage. Its milky juice or latex yields rubber while the dried roots and a related plant called A. Androsaemifolium makes a drug that acts as a heart stimulant.

Hemp originated in Central Asia. Hemp cultivation for fibre was recorded in China as early as 2800 BCE and was also practiced in the Mediterranean countries of Europe early in the Christian era, from where it spread to the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages. The botanical name of hemp is Cannabis sativa. Apocynum cannabinum (also called dogbane, amy root, hemp dogbane, prairie dogbane, Indian hemp, rheumatism root or wild cotton) are some of its other names. It is a perennial herbaceous plant that grows throughout much of North America, in the southern half of Canada and throughout the United States. Indian hemp grows well in the southern part of Nigeria as well. The South-west and Midwest regions of the country (not to ignore the eastern and South-south regions) are areas where the plant is wildly and widely cultivated.

The local names for Indian hemp include marijuana and Igbo (weed). In the early 1970s while I was in secondary school, it was called Kukuye. Later, I heard people call it “gbanna” My first encounter with hemp was early in life, from soldiers of the Nigerian Army quartered in my home town, Owo. The 133 Battalion was a shouting distance from our house at Owatowose Street and we had many of the soldiers as tenants. I was particularly close to Baba Muji (unfortunately, he lost the girl, her only child) who taught me how to nurture Indian hemp planted in pots and other sundry containers. I undertook this assignment for virtually all of them any time the call of duty took them away from home many days. Baba Muji especially gave me a strict warning not to dare try hemp. Another father-figure soldier Cpl. Fatade gave similar warnings. Why they consumed what they asked me NEVER to touch eluded my young mind at the time.

Later, however, I got to know why. After my first degree I moved in the circle of friends who smoked marijuana. I would sit in their midst as they puffed away at the weed. Interestingly, they, too, warned me not to imitate them! Thank God, all of them today are either born-again Christians (even pastors) or very successful citizens that have held, and still hold, responsible positions in society. It is, however, not all a bed of roses for hemp smokers. I have forgotten his name now but there was this guy at Ife who was said to be so brilliant that he was admitted to read Nuclear Physics but hemp ruined his life. Each time he came to the buttery to play draught, he was always high. He changed course but I am not sure he eventually graduated.

One day many years afterwards (he should have left Ife ahead of me under normal circumstances), he came to seek my help at The PUNCH where I was already editor. He was incoherent. I wanted to help but how? His dressing and composure gave him away instantly. I gave him cash and he left. He came again and again until a senior colleague warned me to stop encouraging him. Only God knows how many such lives hemp has ruined and keeps ruining.  

An Irish doctor studying in India, Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, is credited with having discovered what is called “Medical Marijuana” in the 1830s when he found that cannabis extracts could help to lessen stomach pain and vomiting in people suffering from cholera. Some studies have also shown that Indian hemp oil helps to improve hair and beard growth for some, as well as nourishing the hair so that it grows thicker and stronger. DAX Indian hemp is said to contain a unique oil blend that moisturizes hair to help repair damage caused by chemical treatments.   

China is touted as the world’s largest hemp fibre and seed producer but the world market for hemp products reportedly remains relatively small. Gone also were the days when hemp was the “hardest” drug available. Even Tramaldor, cocaine and heroin are said to have taken the back seat with today’s youths. No one hides to puff at hemp any more. It is done openly these days. At motor parks, street corners, football fields and at parties, boys and girls do their own thing unfazed. Drug abuse may get to the level of an epidemic if something serious is not done – and done urgently. At least, this is the view of retired Brigadier-General Mohamed Buba Marwa, the new Chairman of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA).

Marwa needs little or no introduction. Our paths crossed in the second half of the 1980s when he was the military administrator of old Borno state (comprising now of Borno and Yobe states) and I the Features Editor of The PUNCH. Later, he was made the military governor of Lagos state and we got even closer. Efforts to rubbish his achievements in Lagos failed spectacularly. The “Keke” he introduced to ease Lagos transportation is still called “Keke Marwa” to this day. Ditto “Marwa Gardens” even though it has officially been re-named MKO Abiola Gardens.  When he decided to seek the PDP presidential flag in 2006, he invited me to become his campaign’s Director, Media and Publicity. Marwa’s mantra appears to me as “what is worth doing at all is worth doing well”. He not only possesses the ability, he also has a heart for humanity.

On January 16, 2021, Marwa was named the NDLEA Chairman/CEO; before then he had been the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee for the elimination of drug abuse (PACEDA). When, in his former office, his ideas clashed with those of Gov. Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo state, I filed behind Akeredolu. Akeredolu wanted the new thinking on hemp considered – that is, medical marijuana – but Marwa would have none of that. Since his new appointment, I have had cause to rub minds with him on his opposition to medical marijuana. He is not totally blind to the arguments in favour of medical marijuana but thinks the time is not ripe for it. He reiterated the same position last week as he was quoted as saying “Nigeria is the last country to consider a law to legalise marijuana in any shape and form. Should we have such a law, we will soon become a nation of junkies and criminals”

Interestingly, Gov. Akeredolu last Thursday also reiterated his support for the controlled cultivation of hemp for medicinal purposes and also as foreign exchange earner. Other countries are doing it; why not Nigeria? Akeredolu appears ready to take the lead and hold the bull by the horns. He is not alone in this. Benjamin Okezie Kalu, the spokesperson of the House of Representatives, is also in the forefront of efforts to legalise hemp for the same medicinal purposes and as foreign exchange earner. While the controversy rages, Marwa has been upbeat in tackling the drug menace.

NDLEA’s record of achievement speaks for itself. It is reported to have achieved the following: Restoring the visibility of the Agency for local and international partnerships; boosting the morale and confidence of officers and men of the NDLEA through practical steps to address their welfare and career stagnation issues; attracting international support such as the donation of operational equipment and technical assistance by the UNODC, EU, US, UK, French governments and others; launching non-stop actions against drug cartels across the country with the new maxim “offensive action”, which has in less than three months yielded, among others: The arrest of 2,175 drug traffickers; the seizure of 2,050,766.33 kilograms of assorted illicit drugs; the filing of about 2,100 drug cases in court with over 500 convictions and 1,549 pending cases in court; cash and drug seizures valued at over N85 billion; setting up of Special Purpose Committee to involve stakeholders in the war against illicit drugs; instituting a bi-monthly assessment and cash-backed award for Best Performing Command to motivate officers and men; unprecedented goodwill for the Agency through Advocacy visits to Governors and other stakeholders as well as visits by international partners to pledge their support; creation of additional Directorates to reposition and enhance the performance of the Agency; among others.

Yet, the cannabis controversy rages, which brings to mind reggae music star Peter Tosh’s appeal to the Jamaican authorities to legalise marijuana while he, Tosh, would advertise it! More countries all over the world – in Europe, Asia, USA, even South Africa- have legalised the controlled cultivation of marijuana mainly for medicinal purposes. The other day, former heavyweight boxing champion, Mike Tyson, was given a licence to grow “weed”. Just like Gov. Akeredolu has argued, it is not as if the countries legalizing marijuana do not have drug issues; striking a balance between fighting the drug menace and drawing the positives from hemp becomes imperative.

Thus, Marwa’s fears cannot be taken lightly if a bad situation is not to get worse. Adequate preparations must be made; we must not jump into the bandwagon just to imitate the Joneses. All the same, NDLEA should continue the discussion with all sides to the argument. If we close our eyes to the latest trends and discoveries, we run the risk of being left behind. Must we continue to destroy “raw materials” that can fetch us scare foreign exchange for lack of imagination, innovation and daring?  These are the two sides of the coin which must be carefully weighed before a decision is taken. The earlier, the better!

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