Updated: Apr 7
As the current prohibitive drug control approach fails to address the world’s drug problem and the debate on more effective response continue to heighten, few countries are breaking out of the status quo to adopt evidence-based approach. Very recently, Ghana joined the few by passing into law a New Narcotic Control Commission Bill on Friday 20th March 2020. To this end, the West Africa Drug Policy Network (WADPN) commends the Ghanaian parliament and the Ministry of Interior and Defense for such a bold initiative. Contrary to Ghana’s current narcotic law, the bill is progressive and forward looking in many ways. For instance, it promotes harm reduction practices, introduces fines as alternative to mandatory custodial sentence particularly for minor nonviolent drug offences, and the widely spoken about “special provision relating to cannabis”.
Whilst this sounded in the ears of many as good news, eyebrows were unexpectedly raised among the mental health and religions communities of Ghana. In a written petition, they appealed to the president to refrain from assenting to the bill except the “special provision relating to cannabis” clause was obliterated. Their appeal is predicated on a few implications of the clause which they claimed are contrary to the interest and welfare of Ghana. Key amongst them are, the breach of the 1961 UN Single Convention, the tendencies of increased dependency and mental health risk due to the recommended tetrahydro cannabinoid (THC) content and the country’s incapability to determine the levels of THC in cannabis.
WADPN is concerned that these claims are not evidence-based and may have the tendency to deprive Ghanaians of a lifetime opportunity for a more effective drug control response, in an event the president heeds. I, therefore, wish to provide some clarifications that invalidates these claims for the president’s consideration as I humbly ask that he assents to the bill.
The “special provision relating to cannabis” clause states thus, “despite provisions in sections 36 to 39 of this Act, the Minister, on the recommendation of the Commission, may grant a license for the cultivation of cannabis which has no more than 0.3% THC content for industrial purposes only for obtaining fibre or seed or for horticultural purposes.”
Breach of the 1961 UN Single Convention: Assenting to the bill, with the said provision, does not breach 1961 UN Single Convention as the petitioners avers. Rather it complies with it and by extension World Health Organization (WHO)’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) recommendations.
Even though the Single Convention 1961 prohibits production and supply of specific drugs and of drugs with similar effects, at the same time, it unequivocally exempts the licensed production and supply of such drugs for medical and scientific purposes. It is noted in the preamble of the 1961 Convention that “the medical use of narcotic drugs continues to be indispensable for the relief of pain and suffering and that adequate provision must be made by member states to ensure their availability for such purposes”. Article 4 (c) of the same Convention also allows member states, which includes Ghana, to limit use and possession of drugs to medicinal and scientific purposes.
The lack of unanimity of member states on re-scheduling cannabis under a less rigid regime due to the high rate of dependence and mental health condition arising from cannabis use also account for breach, according to the Petitioners. Notwithstanding, assenting to the Bill still does not amount to breach for member states who wish to license cannabis for medicinal and industrial purpose whist it remains under its current reschedules. This is evident in the case of many countries around the world including Zambia and Zimbabwe who have kept recreational use of cannabis illegal and allowed only limited form for medical use even though cannabis remain in their respective schedules in the 1961 Convention.
The tendencies of increased dependency and mental health risk due to high (THC) content: The petition claimed that, smoker’s preference for Ghanaian cannabis is due to its 5% THC level which is the psychoactive constituent that cause emotional dependence and mental health disturbance. It further associates the high number of mental health patients within the age of 15 to 49 in Ghana mental homes, to the use of this “5% THC cannabis” and other harder drugs. This asseveration is distinctly immaterial to the intent and purpose of the new bill, even if it was true. This is because the 0.3% THC recommended by the bill is not for consumption and, therefore, poses no addiction or mental health risk. Besides, it remains illegal to cultivate cannabis in Ghana, under the very Bill, without license from the Ministry of Interior and Defense, irrespective of its THC percentage composition.
Moreover, the 0.3% is a standardized recommendation by World Health Organization (WHO)’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) in their forty-first meeting held in Geneva, Switzerland, November 2018. Record shows that this is the first-time cannabis was subject to review by the Committee since its original placement within the International Drug Control Conventions. This review which was ordered by Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) Resolution 52/5 provides undeniable evidence that cannabis and cannabis preparation have therapeutic advantages not possessed by other substances. It is based on these therapeutic values that not more than 0.3% was recommended for medicinal and scientific purposes under licensed supervision. The aim is to prevent the harms caused using cannabis and cannabis preparations whilst ensuring that they are available when and where they are needed for the recommended purposes. WHO admitted that the committee acknowledged that in 1961, when the Convention was established and cannabis was included in Schedule IV, cannabis and cannabis preparations were not recognized to have any therapeutic use and therapeutic potential as they are now.
Inability to test for the level of THC: The petition largely questioned Ghana’s testing capacity to determine (THC) levels in cannabis which will make work tedious for law enforcement agencies. To a large extent, this may be true, and that is because there was no need for such capacity in the first place, since cultivation of cannabis for all purposes was illegal. However, now that the New Bill introduces licensing the cultivation of cannabis with not more than 0.3% of THC for medicinal and industrial purposes, the need for the necessary structures including testing capacity is incontrovertible. It is obvious that this comes along with cost. However, reallocating resources to harness the oodles of psych-pharmacologists and existing forensic criminal and or medical laboratories Ghana has, could minimize this cost with maximum impact.
I, therefore, wish to solicit the support of all Ghanaians and humbly call on the president to assent to the New Narcotic Control Commission Bill for evidence-based sustainable drug control. The bill promises among many others, alternative livelihood for illicit crop growers, reduce the prevalence of cannabis with high components of THC, save resources on futile drug law enforcement efforts, create huge employment for young Ghanaians rather than incarcerating and criminalizing them for minor nonviolent drug offences.
The bill will further address the challenges most government face in enforcing balanced drug control policies that protect people from the harm, public-health and social challenges arising from cannabis misuse whilst at the same time making them available for medical use for people who use them. WADPN is committed to work closely with government of Ghana to ensure a smooth and efficient implementation of the New Narcotic Control Commission Bill as soon as the president assents to it.
Director – WAPN
 https://www.who.int/medicines/access/controlled-substances/ecdd_41_meeting/en/  https://www.who.int/medicines/access/controlled-substances/ecdd_41_meeting/en/  https://www.who.int/medicines/access/controlled-substances/WHOresponses-to-CNDon41stECDDrecs.pdf?ua=1