There are few subjects that can stir up stronger emotions among doctors, scientists, researchers, policymakers and the public than medical marijuana.
Is it safe? Should it be legal? Is it really the “wonder herb” that some claim it is? Is medical marijuana a ploy to legalise marijuana in general?
These are the questions occupying Zimbabweans since Government recently gazetted Statutory Instrument 62 of 2018 (Dangerous Drugs-Production of Cannabis for Medicinal and Scientific Use Regulations).
SI 62/2018 facilitates legal farming of marijuana for medical, scientific and industrial purposes.
Bindura University of Science Education Biological Science Department chairperson Dr Walter Chingwaru thinks this is an epoch-changing piece of legislation.
“Armed with knowledge that cannabis can help rescue the country from economic depression and help solve the increasing burden of diseases, waking up to the news that research and development on cannabis has been liberalised was one of the best news,” he says.
“By opening up doors to research and development of hemp-based products, Zimbabwe may have opened doors to many discoveries with the potential to help solve the growing number of health problems including cancers, diabetes, obesity, anorexia, pain, inflammation, among other diseases.”
The United States, The Netherlands, Italy and the Czech Republic, among other countries, have legalised production of cannabis for medicinal use.
“Medical marijuana” refers to using the whole, unprocessed marijuana plant or its basic extracts to treat symptoms of illness and other conditions.
According to the UK National Institutes of Health, people have used marijuana plant or its basic extracts to treat symptoms of illness and other conditions.
Independent scientists report that medical marijuana is effective in controlling some forms of pain, alleviating nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy, treating wasting due to HIV, and combating muscle spasms associated with multiple sclerosis, among other benefits.
The most common medicinal uses of marijuana are to treat cancers, diabetes, asthma, obesity, nausea and vomiting, chronic pain, liver diseases, glaucoma, stroke, multiple sclerosis, appetite loss, heart disease and psychosis, among a wide range of diseases.
Amid the outcry by health practitioners and civil rights groups on the legalisation of cannabis for further injuring the national psyche, the Minister of Health and Child Care, Dr David Parirenyatwa has explained that marijuana will only be grown for medicinal, scientific and industrial purposes.
“Our thrust and desired focus is for the medicinal, industrial and scientific use but under licensing. The growing of cannabis will be done in a legal and well regulated environment,” he emphasised.
“Possession of cannabis other than medicinal and scientific purposes is, therefore, still illegal in Zimbabwe.”
For medical purposes of cannabis, an extract known as CBD (cannabidiol) is used because this component of marijuana has little, if any, intoxicating properties.
Marijuana itself is believed to have more than 100 active components.
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the chemical that causes the “high” that goes along with marijuana consumption.
CBD-dominant strains have little or no THC.
Based on the cumulative scientific evidence thus far, it is clear that marijuana is like a gold mine for biomedical discoveries, with a potential to yield a number of health-promoting products.
“It can be used as a food supplement owing to its health-promoting effects, including the fact that it is rich in substances that have anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative and neuro-protective effects,” adds Dr Chingwaru.
Zimbabwe is faced with an increasing burden of both infectious and non-infectious diseases.
Unhealthy habits like alcohol abuse and consuming too much fat, salt and sugar have sparked an epidemic of diseases which together constitute the leading cause of death globally.
Alcohol abuse, high-fat diets and physical inactivity — all lifestyle behaviours — have been identified to be the major drivers of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Zimbabwe which cannabis is believed to heal.
Diseases linked to lifestyle choices, including diabetes and some cancers, killed 138 000 people in 2014 as morbidity and mortality cases for NCDs continue to increase at an alarming rate.
The four main NCDs are cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes and chronic lung diseases.
Besides being preventable, these diseases are now the leading cause of death and disability. In addition, they are not replacing existing causes of illnesses such as infectious disease and trauma, but are adding to the disease burden.
This leaves Zimbabwe facing the double burden of infectious disease and NCDs. Though the primary solution is disease prevention, that is lifestyle behaviour modification — cannabis has also come to the rescue.
Dr Parirenyatwa added that cannabis, the plant and the products are controlled under the Dangerous Drug Act 15 (2) and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act (Chapter 9:23) and it is treated as a prohibited drug for recreational purposes.
“The two Acts regulate the importation, exportation and production, possession, distribution and the use of dangerous drugs and matters that are incidental thereto,” said Dr Parirenyatwa.
In the US, marijuana is currently legal at state level in 29 states and Washington DC.
President Donald Trump promised not to interfere with people who use medical marijuana, though his administration is currently threatening to reverse this policy. Dr Parirenyatwa added that Government would be strict and regulation will be stiff for growers, according to the SI 62 requirements. Those wishing to grow the drug need to pump out $50 000 to get a licence.
But the Zimbabwe Medicines Authority (ZiMA) has appealed to Government to reconsider the move, which they believe will lead to an uncontrolled abuse of cannabis in the country, leading to an even worse drug abuse burden for the already struggling psychiatric health sector.
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