As a Californian in Ghana, it’s hard not to compare what I see to trends back home. With the passing of marijuana legislation in California, I saw an opportunity to look into the back-alley banter on legalization talks in Ghana. As a student in Ghana, I found out rather quickly that weed-smoking was as popular here as just about anywhere. Whether or not it’s acceptable is another issue entirely.
Chris Brown performed the year I was a student in Accra and there was a pretty overwhelming response to one aspect of his performance. In perceived American bravado, he lit up on stage. There was an immediate backlash in the media.
“At the early hours of 6th March 2013 in Ghana, it was reported that the entire air around the capital city especially areas in close proximity to the Accra sports stadium was smelling of marijuana often referred to as “wee,” reported one news site.
During orientation, we were warned in the talks and Q&As about safety and drug use. It was mostly, a ‘use your best judgment’ approach peppered with ‘please don’t make the program look bad’ guidance. We were warned by past students that if you’re caught with marijuana (sometimes referred to as “wee”) in some places and unable to pay the “fines” you will go to jail.
A person caught smoking in public can be put in jail for 5 years, but sentencing usually ranges between 5 to 15 years depending on the severity of the charge. However, vague language makes room for selective enforcement.
The written law in Ghana is a zero-tolerance policy for any illegal drug use. Marijuana, or “wee,” is considered a schedule one narcotic in law– but in practice, Ghana is the third highest cannabis using country in the world and first highest in continental Africa, according to a UN report. It begs the question about this particular headline— if there was a cloud of smoke covering an entire concert venue, there must at least be a decent sized crowd who approve of marijuana use.
A recent article on the topic went as far as to compare the sentiments around weed usage to the early legalization discussions in California.
“Similar to the early stages of decriminalization in the state of California, cannabis is not technically illegal in Ghana, though the Narcotics Drug Law prohibits any Ghanaian from cultivating, using, importing, or exporting any narcotic drug without a license. Patients are required to obtain approval from the Ministry of Health, which enables citizens to lawfully use, cultivate, import, and export wee.”
Inevitably, there has been a strong pushback. The Ministry of Health’s sanctions for legal use seem to stand in opposition to the Ghana Mental Health Authority. One body permits registration for legal medical use, and the other is lead by Dr. Akwesi Osei, who has been vocal about his position that marijuana is a serious drug.
“There are a whole lot of issues about cannabis and all along when we have known here in Ghana and Africa that cannabis does cause and seriously disposes you and brings about mental illness, in the west they had challenged that position so in those days when you attend conferences and we made this point, they will say it does not.”
Osei has stated that the cannabis grown in the climate of sub-Saharan Ghana leads to a higher concentration of THC, which leads to disruptions in chemical transmissions that contribute to normal brain activity. He has also argued that weed increases violent and criminal behavior in users, though no research was cited.
The broader drive for legalization, aside from the Rastafari Council of Ghana’s predictable pleas to legalize for religious reasons, is based more in an interest to regulate marijuana purchases, create consistent and smaller doses of the product, and minimize criminalization that has been consistently feeding into the prison system.
Despite opposition, the culture around cultivation and recreational use is growing, again, much in the way California’s boutique marijuana scene has expanded with increasing use. Whispers of THC infused drinks, advanced methods of growing circulate, but it’s more common along the beachside to stumble upon people unabashedly smoking large barreled joints.
With selective enforcement, split dialogue, ambiguous law, and wide-spread use, it’s hard to say what will determine the outcome of this debate. Until laws change, folks will continue to gather where they know the law doesn’t care to look while others look on with disapproval.