What does it mean to decriminalize weed?

As ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo calls for Nigeria to decriminalize marijuana, here's what it would mean if it happens.

Speaking with BBC NewsDay, the former military ruler said, "“It is essentially a call for what we call decriminalization. If a young man tries to experiment with a wrap of marijuana for instance & because of that we put him in jail" , he said.

“I was in prison as a political prisoner & I interacted with these people, some of them just for being caught with a wrap of Marijuana, they’re put in jail. They came out of jail more hardened, more hardened criminals than when they went in. Whereas, if they have been treated as they should be treated & if they need attention, they’ll be given attention.", he added.

“They will be looked after, given a clean needle like it’s been done in some parts of Africa already. Harm reduction & safe places where they can listen to people, they can get attention, they can get counsel. This is the sort of thing we are talking about." , Obasanjo continued.

The ex-president is the chairman of the West Africa Drugs Commission. In his position, he is also a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group of eminent world leaders and decision makers.

In recent times, the commission has called for a rethink on drugs policy. In many ways, it makes perfect sense that Obasanjo is taking this position because around the world, nations are changing their stance on the legal status of what was once viewed as one of the most dangerous recreational drugs.

It's a global trend

Most persons may remember the Netherlands and particularly Amsterdam when they think about places where marijuana is legal.

However, in recent times, countries have taken a relaxed stance on how marijuana use and possession is treated and the punishment meted to persons who have been found with these drugs.

This new stance has been mostly motivated by research, especially in the United States where medical marijuana is legal in over 13 states and counting.

In other parts, it is driven by economic motivations. Marijuana is a heavily consumed commodity and the potential to make foreign exchange has convinced some countries to decriminalise the cultivation, sale and use of the drug.

Take, Lesotho, for instance.

The South African nation became the first in Africa to grant a marijuana license in September 2017.

In a nation of over 2 million citizens with soil rich in iron, the economic implications of lifting the restrictions on the country's most important cash crop are immense.

Decriminalization is not legalization

If it happens in Nigeria, it will be for a mix of different reasons.

On the one hand however, it is important to know what ex-President Obsanjo suggested. The decriminalisation of marijuana is not the same thing as legalising it.

As it stands, marijuana possession and use is illegal according to the nation's laws.

The Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency Act which establishes the NDLEA empowers the agency to make arrest and prosecute persons found using, cultivating and selling the drug in whatever quantity.

Prison terms vary, and depending on the circumstance, they could be as severe as a couple of years for walking around at the wrong time of day with a blunt in one's pocket.

If marijuana is decriminalised, it would mean relaxing or entirely lifting the heavy sanctions placed on the use of the drug by our nation's laws.

This would mean that a bill for change the existing drug laws would go through the National Assembly. Among the provisions that would be made, it would need to outline that drug use and cultivation is certain circumstances would be allowed.

It is important that these circumstances are expressly stated, because while they are open to interpretation, to totally lift the sanctions on marijuana use would mean that the drug would be used every and any where.

Let's borrow a leaf from the Netherlands. While drug use is not exactly legal in the country, it is allowed in certain places and possession is allowed to certain degrees.

People are allowed to use drugs in outdoor areas, at parties or festivals. However, there is still a strict age restriction.

A similar arrangement would work if implemented in Nigeria.

What is there to gain?

Decriminalising marijuana in Nigeria would mean that fewer people would go to jail for crimes related to the drugs.

Possession in small quantities and use would no longer be crimes. However, large scale dealers of the drug, as well as the famed farmers who cultivate in hidden forests are likely to get the short end of the stick.

The only recourse would be that licences are given, as the case is in Lesotho and the United States.

This is where the good sides come in.

In January 2017, the UNODC suggested that 14.3% of Nigeria's population smokes cannabis making it the third highest consumption rate in the world. Iceland and the United States of America were ranked first and second respectively.

Cultivating marijuana in large quantities will open up massive economic opportunities for thousands of people. Beyond mere farming, entire industries would rise in its wake.

Consider the market for weed-infused drinks, cakes, marijuana-flavoured accessories like condoms, candles, and oils.

The biggest market, however, would be the culture of leisure that it will inspire. Already, marijuana use among young Nigerians is at an all-time high.

If marijuana is decriminalized, marijuana bars, themed clubs and hubs would show up almost immediately.

There's also the potential for another sub-industry of head shops which cater to other products that are used in the consumption of marijuana.

That's not counting the implications on the people who will use them.

Already, drug use is already a major topic in popular conversation. If decriminalised, the youth, already with a voracious appetite, will most likely use it to their fill.

While this makes perfect economic sense, the government would do well to manage the societal effects of decriminalizing marijuana in a country where order and moderation are not our strongest points.

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