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cannabis in Kenya

Cannabis in Kenya: Legalization Gaining Momentum as Africa Embraces Legal Cannabis

The number of Kenyans calling for the legalization of cannabis has grown significantly since 2018, when the Marijuana Control Bill was introduced in Kenyan Parliament, seeking to decriminalize its use and allow legal cannabis cultivation in the country.

What the Law Says about Cannabis in Kenya

In Kenya, cannabis cultivation and consumption were banned during the British Colonial East African Protectorate under the Opium Ordinance, the law which came into full force on January 1, 1914, criminalizing its use and cultivation. Local legal cannabis advocates including lawmakers, cannabis farmers, university students and researchers are hopeful that the Marijuana Control Bill of 2018 could boost the country’s health-care services and enhance economic growth once enacted. 

The bill seeks to decriminalize cannabis possession and use, clear criminal records of those with prior cannabis related convictions, enact a legal and regulated commercial sales program, and impose progressive taxation measures. The passage of the bill would also place Kenya in the league of African nations that have legalized marijuana farming and consumption for medicinal and recreational purposes,  according to proponents of legal cannabis.

“We expect Kenya with its potential and like other countries in Africa that have already legalized cannabis, to get an opportunity to compete in the global market with countries such as Canada , Jamaica, and the USA in commercial cultivation and consumption of this holy weed,” said Dr. Gwado Ogot, a Kenyan researcher and a strong advocate for legal cannabis.

The State of Cannabis in Africa

Lesotho became the first country in Africa to legalize the crop in 2017, granting administrative licences for commercial farming of marijuana for medicinal and scientific purposes, as per Lesotho Ministry of Health data. Last month, it became the first African nation to export cannabis to the European Union. South Africa was the third country in the continent to legalize cannabis after Lesotho and Zimbabwe, in a period of just one year.

Several countries including Ghana, Zambia, Malawi, Uganda and Rwanda have followed suit in exploiting what cannabis researchers say to be immense potential wealth and economic benefits for Africa. 

In Kenya, illegal cannabis has been cultivated and consumed in various forms, and it remains the drug of choice for the growing number of Kenyan consumers for its medicinal and recreational values.

Data from Kenya’s National Anti-Narcotic Drugs Agency, NACADA, show that unregulated cannabis consumption is higher among youth in local institutions of higher learning. Despite the push for legalization, security officers in Kenya continue to confiscate and destroy it. 

Cannabis in Kenya
Kenyan security officers arrest a suspected cannabis dealer and confiscate hundreds of roles of cannabis worth US $40,000 in Mombasa, Kenya. Photo by Charles Ogallo.

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Growing Cannabis in Kenya

Johnson Mwariguti, 63, a cannabis farmer known to be cultivating cannabis in a secret farm at the slopes of Mount Kenya some 80 miles outside of Nairobi, confirmed the availability of a larger market for cannabis in Kenya and the region of East Africa.

The father of eight sees cannabis farming as a large goldmine yet to be exploited for the economic well-being of Kenyans and Africa in general, and insists that decriminalizing the crop will not lead to a higher rate of cannabis consumption among young people in the country.

“Its time for us Kenyans to be free from this colonial law against marijuana, and harassment from law enforcers who would always take advantage of the law in order to take bribes from us. Whenever we say no, they arrest and charge us only because we are growing this bhang, which now is widely accepted in many countries across the world,” he said.

Mwariguti’s sentiment was echoed by Narok Senator Ledama Olekina, a strong proponent of cannabis farming in Kenya known for his consistent agitations for legal cannabis. He challenged other legislators to prioritize the Marijuana Bill before parliament in order to fast-track the process of decriminalizing the use of the plant in the country.

“We should not be held back by outdated beliefs that cannabis is an illegal drug,” he said. “Why not legalize it and stop burning tonnes of it as a public show, and instead tap from its immense benefits?” the lawmaker asked.

Cannabis in Kenya
Cannabis goes into flames in Mombasa after being confiscated and destroyed by Kenyan security officers. Photo by Charles Ogallo.

The Bigger Picture

In 2020, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs reclassified cannabis, removing it from the list of the most dangerous drugs following a recommendation from the World Health Organization. WHO argued that the inclusion of cannabis in schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was not consistent with the criteria to be placed on the list.

A recently updated report by the Arcview Group, a UK-based  market research firm, says the global market for legal cannabis is expected to reach almost US $43 billion by 2024, with its demand in Europe alone rising to US $37 billion in 2027, up from US $35 billion in 2019.

In addition to the potential financial benefits for Kenyans, with their favourable climatic conditions for cannabis farming and proximity to Europe, Kenya and Africa in general are well placed to cater to the growing European market for medicinal benefits.