Ideas & Debate

Why Kenya needs to talk about medical marijuana

A man carries marijuana plants during a police raid Indonesia
A man carries marijuana plants during a police raid on 10 hectares of marijuana plantation in Montasik, Aceh province in Indonesia on March 14, 2019. PHOTO | AFP 

Many adults today grew up knowing that all marijuana is bad, and without a doubt some still habour resentment for the plant. What was, however, never spoken about are the positive attributes that parts of the marijuana plant may have on health and wellness.

This article does not seek to condone nor condemn users of marijuana for recreation. I believe that it is entirely up to an individual to decide to indulge in any legal substances they choose provided they know the consequences.

This is about making a case for use of more natural alternatives to hard painkillers and medicines which we all know have negative side effects. People in chronic pain need to consider options that are not conventional and not what big pharma may want to hear.

I have a family which has had three cases of cancer. Two of them are alive and fighting the disease, with one possibly in complete regression. I know that chemotherapy takes a toll on the body and would like conversations around alternatives to this cancer management. I am made to understand medical marijuana is one such alternative. Globally, some countries have legalised medicinal-grade cannabis for chronically ill patients.

Both Canada and the Netherlands have government-run programmes in which specialised companies supply quality-controlled herbal cannabis. In the US, 23 states and Washington, DC, have introduced laws to allow the medical use of cannabis. One only needs to do an online search to establish the numerous articles and research pieces done on cannabidiol or CBD as a reference point to this opinion.


Recently the Kibra Member of Parliament, Ken Okoth, introduced a Bill in Parliament which asked for a relook at the marijuana conversation. I would imagine that Mr Okoth, being a cancer patient, understands the uses of the substance or its derivatives in managing pain. I think this endorsement from a person with cancer is powerful. Many people may not know about marijuana’s pain management capability.

Cannabis is a generic term used for drugs produced from plants belonging to the genus Cannabis. It is also known as marijuana. Marijuana has two main components — tetrahydrocannabinol also known as THC and cannabidiol (CBD). Medical cannabis or medical marijuana refers to the use of cannabis or cannabinoids to treat disease or alleviate symptoms.

THC is the ““high”” causing agent, while CBD has all the supposedly good medicinal properties. CBD has been known to help in the treatment of arthritis, epilepsy, to name a few, but does not get you “high”.

In preclinical studies, CBD shows potential therapeutic efficacy against a diverse assortment of medical conditions. These include but are not limited to seizure disorders, anxiety disorder, depression, inflammation, various forms of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegeneration, symptoms of multiple sclerosis, and chronic pain, either used alone or when co-administered with THC.

There are three main cannabinoids in the marijuana plant: THC (the one that gets you high — psychoactive); CBD (non-psychoactive); and CBN (non-psychoactive)

Many scholars in this area argue that when a cancer cell comes into contact with the cannabinoid THC, it switches off the mitochondria (energy supply) inside the cancer cell and that is what kills a cancer cell.

But when it comes into contact with a non-cancerous cell the mitochondria are left undisturbed. Killing cancer cells this way does not happen only by the presence of THC but also by the presence of all other cannabinoids (there are about 800+ the last time I checked) and this is known as the entourage effect.

In layman’s terms if you isolate THC on its own and administer it to a cancer patient it is less effective at killing cancer cells.

However, when it is administered in combination with all the other cannabinoids in cannabis (hence the term full extract cannabis oil — FECO) it kills cancer cells very effectively.

Other scholars believe CBD is a natural and credible alternative to many people suffering with pain and diseases and that it is time we entertained a least the discussion. Again let me mention there are those who feel marijuana has negative consequences and may trigger various forms of psychosis, and other challenges. A deeper conversation and more research is needed to have a balanced discussion on this otherwise new topic.

According to an Expert Committee on Drug Dependence by World Health Organisation, CBD has been demonstrated as an effective treatment of epilepsy in several clinical trials.

One pure CBD product (Epidiolex®) is currently under review for approval in the US after completion of Phase III trials. To date, there is no evidence of recreational use of CBD or any public health-related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.

CBD products are found over the counter with no prescription in most European countries and in America.

In South Africa, CBD products are sold as easily as food supplements. It is time health and research experts began looking seriously at the issue of alternatives to big pharma medicines, a lot of which have serious side effects.

There must be several natural alternatives to the conventional medicines with lower side effects that are not being discussed nor debated. This opinion seeks to ignite this conversation and get Kenyans thinking about these options.

Kariuki is the Managing Director of Khweza Consulting and a strategic communications and public policy expert. [email protected]