What does your average cannabis user look like? Do they wear their hair in dreads or dress in the colors of Rastafarianism? Are they all male and unemployed or seen in groups, loitering around the corners of abandoned houses or do they look like anyone at all? Your answers to these questions will depend on your ascription to the present stigmas surrounding cannabis, particularly, its recreational use. It has now become the norm to consider anyone who either smokes cannabis or consumes cannabis-infused products to be some sort of social delinquent although the reality may strongly suggest otherwise. This narrative of cannabis as the preserve and common preference for the most troublesome individuals in society was best articulated by the first Director of the Bureau of Narcotics in the United States of America, Harry Anslinger who once uttered the following statement in Congress;
“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind… Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.”
By 1970, cannabis would be classified as a Schedule 1 drug alongside heroin and LSD and would continue to remain under this harsh narcotic classification for many years, in many parts of the US. It would also lead to an increase in the incarceration rates of African-American, Caribbean, Aboriginal and Native American peoples living in America for the crimes of cannabis possession, distribution, and consumption. What is now known as the prison industrial complex is fed by the high conviction rate of these minority groups.
For many African nations, the present negative perception of cannabis use and users is an imperialist import inherited from the struggle with cannabis observed in such Western nations as the US as indicated. Even though the cannabis plant is generally (and possibly erroneously) believed to have come to Africa and the rest of the world from Central & East Asia, its use and that of many other herbs for medicinal purposes in many parts of the African continent, is well recorded and dates as far back as the 1550 BC where cannabis is noted to have been smoked in pipes and used for beverages. The Ebers Papyrus of Ancient Egypt, one of the oldest medicinal manuals ever discovered in an archeological excavation, detailed the use of cannabis as an anti-inflammatory and pain suppressing remedy to ailments and injuries of all sorts. It was also used practically in the production of ropes, paper, sails, and other fiber-based items.
In East Africa, information regarding the exact arrival of cannabis in the region is also debatable but it is believed to have come directly from Portuguese and Arab traders and it quickly became an integral part of the lives and cultures of many tribes as detailed in Martin Booth’s book, “Cannabis: A History” as well as many other ethnographic reports. The widespread use of cannabis in these regions of the continent had no reported effect on crime rates or social misbehavior and it was patronized by all, noble born and pariahs alike. Simply put, the person you may sit next to in a bus, for example, may be a user and yet may be as mundane and non-violent as anyone else because cannabis use does not and should not necessarily connote criminal behavior.
But the axiom has taken root and is now held to be unquestionably true and is so rarely critically examined. As a result, the fight for the legalization of the recreational and medical use of cannabis and cannabis-based products in many parts of the continent with the recent exception of South Africa has been consistently met with prejudice by those lobbyists who still continue to see it as “one of the biggest dangers to society”.
The most alarming aspect of the adoption of this misconstrued ideal of cannabis use and users is that, in spite of the plethora of evidence that has now been made internationally available that supports the medical and health benefits of cannabis consumption, many African nations have insisted on its criminalization based on this warped view without even attempting to investigate these truths for themselves locally. This lack of discernment has led governments of African nations to continue to persecute cannabis users just as their hegemonic overlord has and does.
In contrast, in countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, and Canada, prisons have been relieved of those arrested for cannabis-related offenses. This was done in tandem with legalization and the pursuance of the payment of well-deserved reparations to those who have been most brutalized by the war on cannabis. On the African continent, the targets of oppression are the poor in society who cannot afford to easily bribe themselves out of their misfortune. In Ghana, it is often said that when the police arrive at a crime scene, their first line of business is to round up all the dread-heads in the vicinity and hold them as suspects based entirely on their appearance and its apparent cannabis use implication. A person is also likely to serve up to ten years in jail for the ‘unauthorized’ possession of even the smallest amount of cannabis.
But how can this perception be challenged, opposed and changed and what effect could a change in perception have on public policy? The answer is as simple as it is obvious. Cannabis users have to come out of the proverbial closet of shame that has caused them to enjoy the benefits of cannabis in secret and shun it in public. Take for instance a doctor who is also a cannabis user admitting to their cannabis use. Those who have known her/him as a competent individual both socially and professionally would be insincere to themselves if they suddenly began to view them as social pariahs or criminals. The same would hold for the millions of cannabis users who are also just everyday people either in need of pain relief or a cerebral experience. This is because cannabis users are just like everyone else. Some ‘bad’ people may use it for their own nefarious means just as many do the more socially-accepting alcohol but those individuals form a small fraction of all cannabis users and the larger community should not have to suffer for the sins of a few. With this great coming out, those who have long opposed cannabis use for medicinal or recreational purposes may begin to see that the narrative has indeed been wrong for so long. They may also then be inclined to find out more about cannabis for themselves instead of relying entirely on unexamined views.
A change in mindset is the greatest first step that proponents of cannabis legalization on the African continent may take to see its full legalization and the liberation of those charged with cannabis-related crimes and misdemeanors. The illegality of cannabis is a matter of representation and nothing but a great stoner coming out will correct the pervasive notion and free cannabis from its imposed bad reputation.
– James S. Quarshie