In the high-density neighbourhood of Chinsapo in the Malawian capital of Lilongwe, Rastafarian priest Storm Jericho Kadondo carefully uproots the weeds surrounding a cannabis plant he is secretly growing behind the fence of his house.
“As a Rastafarian I grow at least a tree of cannabis for meditational use. But I have to grow the holy tree in secret because it is illegal to grow it here,” says Kadondo who is the executive director of the Rastafarian Fellowship Association.
All forms of cannabis cultivation – from marijuana, which contains higher levels of the psychoactive compound THC and is used for medicinal and recreational purposes, to hemp, which has negligible levels of THC and numerous industrial uses – are illegal in Malawi. However, the country is reputed to be one of the biggest producers of the plant in southern Africa. And Malawi Gold, a particularly potent strain of marijuana (known locally as chamba), is beloved by cannabis connoisseurs the world over.
For years now Malawi’s sizeable Rastafarian community has been calling for the legalisation of the cultivation, supply and possession of marijuana as smoking the plant is seen as a key tenet of the Rastafari movement. Now their once fringe demands are going mainstream as the price of tobacco, which accounts for approximately 60 per cent of Malawi’s foreign earnings, has plunged on the global market.
In tandem, growing international support for the decriminalisation and legalisation of cannabis is having an impact on the way the plant is perceived. There has been particularly strong support for the legalisation of hemp, which can be used to produce a variety of commercial products ranging from textiles to cosmetics.
“Malawi is losing millions of dollars in export earnings as the global community takes a strong stance against tobacco smoking. The Rasta community believes that the legalisation of marijuana cultivation can turn around the country’s economic fortunes,” Kadondo tells Equal Times. In 2018, auction prices for Malawi’s tobacco farmers were US$1.58 per kilogram; cannabis can fetch 30 times that amount.
Kadondo, says the Rastafarian Fellowship Association has written to the Malawi Law Commission and the Malawi Human Rights Commission to urge the government to follow in the footsteps of countries like Uruguay and Canada by legalising all forms of cannabis.
“Marijuana has many vital properties. The plant has cannabidiol oil [commonly known as CBD or hemp oil] which is in high demand because of its curative elements,” says Kadondo.
Ras Chikomeni Chirwa agrees. The musician and farmer became an overnight celebrity earlier this year after he attempted to run in the country’s presidential elections which takes place this May. Although Chirwa was disqualified because he didn’t meet some of the basic requirements for a nominee, his promise to legalise cannabis won him many supporters.
“The government is failing to make a clear stand on marijuana cultivation,” he tells Equal Times. “The government is acting like cannabis is a new substance, yet it has been used to cure a wide range of diseases for many generations and offers economic opportunities for the country.”
The economic potential of cannabis, despite price slumps
According to a 2011 World Bank report, the trade in marijuana accounts for approximately 0.2 per cent of Malawi’s annual GDP. And while the wholesale prices of marijuana in the some US states (a major global market for cannabis) fell by as much as 50 per cent between 2017 and 2018 due to the high volume of growers flooding the market, cannabis research firm Brightfield Group projects that the legal cannabis market could expand by as much as 60 per cent by 2021, to US$31.4 billion. Such a development could present a huge opportunity for countries like Malawi, where agricultural commodities account for 80 per cent of all exports and agriculture accounts for 80 per cent of all jobs.
The move to legalise cannabis in Malawi took a massive leap forward last December when parliament approved a proposal by Boniface Kadzamira, an independent MP for Ntchisi North in central Malawi, to draft a bill which would allow for the cultivation, production and possession of industrial hemp and marijuana for medical use. While parliament gave the go-ahead for industrial hemp trials, legislators are currently discussing the proposed bill.
This isn’t the first time Malawi’s parliament has debated the legalisation of cannabis. Joe Manduwa, a former deputy agricultural minister, was the first parliamentarian to champion the legal cultivation of industrial hemp back in April 2000. It is a stance he still maintains today.
Legalised hemp cultivation would turn around the country’s economy as it is cheaper to cultivate as compared to tobacco, yet it fetches good prices on the international market,” says Manduwa.
He says it could also help create new jobs, in a country where poverty levels continue to increase: “We are complaining of high rates of unemployment in the country yet if marijuana is legalised it could bring jobs to the youth who are idly walking our streets,” says Manduwa.
He is, however, quick to point out that there is an urgent need for a civic campaign to educate people on the differences between industrial hemp and marijuana.
Similar sentiments are shared by British investor Tanya Clarke who manages the National Industrial Hemp Association of Malawi and has been leading research into industrial hemp cultivation in the country since 2015.
“[Many] Malawians align themselves to religion, and the advocacy of industrial hemp legalisation has suffered because it has been argued on a religious angle. Additionally, many Malawians have challenges in the access to information and this information gap has made them to only look at the negative sides of hemp cultivation,” says Clarke.
However, anti-drug activists continue to warn that by relaxing the rules around industrial hemp cultivation, growers are likely to abuse the law by growing marijuana which could increase drug use amongst youth in the country
“It is true that we might be enticed to go for industrial hemp for the economic benefits, however we also have to consider the social and moral impacts that the legalisation of marijuana could have on the nation,” says Nelson Bazwell Zakeyo, the executive director of Drug Fight Malawi. Anti-legalisation campaigners such as Zakeyo warn that the negative impact of frequent marijuana use can range from a decline in cognitive function to psychotic disorders.
Dr Hetherwick Ntaba, a medical doctor and former foreign minister (1993 to 1994) who supported the legalisation of hemp cultivation when it was first introduced to parliament by Manduwa almost 19 years ago, argues that there is a lot of misinformation surrounding the use of marijuana, and that there is no scientific proof that it is any more dangerous or addictive than controlled substances such as tobacco and alcohol.
“The problem with us Malawians is that we are too conservative and we are treating hemp as a new substance. Those that are in opposition to hemp cultivation argue it would increase crime rates, but this argument lacks logic. The benefits of legalisation outweigh the negatives.”
Bill Maher Thinks Republicans Will ‘Steal’ Pot Legalization
Time is ticking, and political commentators are starting to wonder about the president’s inaction on cannabis reform—an issue with high support among Democrats. And since Democrats are currently in control of the White House and Congress, it’s on them to push a bill to the finish line.
During a June 3 “Overtime” segment on YouTube, the Real Time with Bill Maher host read an audience-submitted question to his guest, former Attorney General Eric Holder, about why President Joe Biden hasn’t pushed for the federal legalization of pot. After all, decriminalization of cannabis at the federal level was one of President Biden’s promises on the election trail.
Maher—who denies alignment with any party—said that dealing with the issue would be “dealing with reality,” and it would also bring political benefit. But if Democrats continue to fail to legalize cannabis at the federal level, Maher thinks Republicans will take up the slack.
“Republicans are gonna steal the issue. I think eventually,” Maher told Holder. “I mean, someone like John Boehner works for a marijuana company now. I mean, it could be one of those freedom issues. And, of course, Republicans smoke lots of pot too.”
“Not enough,” Holder said to instant laughter in the audience. “They need to mellow out just a little more.”
Some Republicans have used cannabis as a freedom issue. Politico reported on leaders who are joining the fold, viewing cannabis “through the prism of states’ rights, personal freedom, job creation and tax revenue.”
In a survey, conducted by Pew Research Center from April 5-11, 2021, the majority—72%—of Democrats said cannabis should be legal for medical and recreational purposes versus 47% of Republicans. Only among “conservative” Republicans, the majority of people surveyed said they aren’t in favor of legalizing cannabis for both medical and recreational purposes. While it’s less popular among Republicans, there are some leaders launching their own bills such as Congresswoman Nancy Mace, with her States Reform Act.
Maher pointed out the recent push for social equity measures transforming the industry slowly, but it is an issue Republicans aren’t onboard with. It’s the social equity provisions that are one of the few dividing points when it comes to cannabis bills. On the other hand, leaders like Senator Cory Booker believe social equity provisions are critical for any cannabis reform bill.
“Now I understand the impetus to want to, like, for example, if you’re gonna have new businesses that are legal in the marijuana field, yeah, they probably should go to the people who suffered the most during the drug war,” Maher said. “Republicans, of course, are saying this is a deal-breaker.”
Maher acknowledged that leaders are not aligning with certain details on the issue, but didn’t exactly provide a full solution.
“What do you want, half a loaf? If they said okay, no equity, is it better to have the law passed or changed or is it better to hold out for equity?” Maher asked.
“It’s better to have the law changed,” Holder responded. “And as I said, deal with the societal reality that we have and, you know, and try to make it as equitable as you possibly can, but I wouldn’t want to stop the movement that I think makes sense for the sake of equity.”
Maher serves on the advisory board with NORML and is a longtime known advocate for cannabis, and is known for slamming religion and political correctness in general. Maher was in the same room as High Times this past May, when the political talk show host made an appearance at Woody Harrelson’s grand opening of The Woods in West Hollywood.
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LeBron James Calls for Brittney Griner’s Release from Russian Prison
NBA superstar LeBron James on Sunday called on the U.S. government to work to secure the release of WNBA champion and Olympic basketball gold medalist Brittney Griner, who has been held in a Russian prison on a cannabis possession charge for nearly four months.
“We need to come together and help do whatever we possibly can to bring BG home quickly and safely!! Our voice as athletes is stronger together,” James wrote on Twitter over the weekend.
James also shared a message from his brand Uninterrupted that calls on President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to work for Griner’s release. The post also encouraged readers to learn more about the case online.
“For over 100 days, BG has faced inhumane conditions in a Russian prison and has been denied communications with her family and loved ones,” reads a message from Uninterrupted that was included in the social media post. “As a decorated Olympian and member of an elite global sport community, BG’s detention must be resolved out of respect for the sanctity of all sport and for all Americans traveling internationally. It is imperative that the U.S. Government immediately address this human rights issue and do whatever is necessary to return Brittney home.”
James also posted a link to an online petition hosted by Change.org that maintains that “Griner is a beloved global citizen who has used her platform since her entry into the WNBA to help others.” James encouraged fans to share and sign the petition, which had collected more than 250,000 signatures as of Tuesday.
Olympic and WNBA Superstar
Griner is a seven-time WNBA All-Star center who has played for the Phoenix Mercury since 2013, including the team’s 2014 league championship squad. She has also twice won the Olympic gold medal with the U.S. women’s basketball team.
Griner has played seven seasons of professional basketball in Russia during the winter, a common practice among WNBA players. She earns about $1 million per season to play in Russia, about four times the salary she earns playing for the WNBA. On January 29, Griner played her most recent game with her team UMMC Ekaterinburg before the Russian league took a two-week break for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournaments.
The Russian Customs Service reported on March 5 that an American women’s basketball player had been detained after cannabis vape cartridges were discovered in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow. The date of the arrest was not given and Griner was not named in the report. The customs also released a video that appeared to show Griner with security officials at an airport security checkpoint.
The Russian state news agency TASS subsequently reported that the arrested player was Griner. Although the date of Griner’s arrest was not announced, media outlets reported that she has been in custody since February 17. After news of the arrest made headlines, the WNBA and the players’ union issued messages of support for the star athlete.
“Brittney Griner has the WNBA’s full support, and our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States,” the league wrote in a statement after Griner’s arrest was announced by Russian media.
Griner’s arrest by Russian authorities has led to an outcry from lawmakers, cannabis advocates, celebrities, and fellow athletes. Democratic Representative Colin Allred of Texas, the star athlete’s home state, said on March 9 that he was looking into Griner’s arrest.
“My office has been in touch with the State Department, and we’re working with them to see what is the best way forward,” said Allred, as quoted by ESPN. “I know the administration is working hard to try and get access to her and try to be helpful here. But obviously, it’s also happening in the context of really strained relations. I do think that it’s really unusual that we’ve not been granted access to her from our embassy and our consular services.”
A month after her arrest, Russian authorities announced that Griner’s detention would be extended for two months. TASS reported on March 17 that Griner was being held in an undisclosed Russian prison pending further investigation of the case. The news agency also said that Ekaterina Kalugina of the human rights group Public Monitoring Commission, a quasi-official body with access to Russian prisons, had visited Griner. Kalugina reported that Griner was doing well and being held in humane conditions.
In May, the U.S. Department of State reclassified Griner’s status, saying that she had been “wrongfully detained” by the Russian government.
“The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner,” the State Department wrote in an email to ESPN. “With this determination, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release.”
Since then, however, the status of Griner’s case has remained unchanged, prompting the renewed calls for her release from James on Sunday.
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SAHPRA Issues Africa’s First License to Conduct Psilocybin Clinical Trials; Aim is to Treat Depressed Women who are HIV Positive
Cannsun receives SAHPRA go ahead for psilocybin clinical trials
The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) has issued Africa’s first license allowing psilocybin to be used in clinical trials. Mutinational cannabis company Cannsun, which has a major grow-op at Atlantis in the Western Cape, said in a press release on 14 April 2022 that SAHPRA had given it the go-ahead “to commence an in-human women’s specific clinical trial to evaluate a safety and efficacy of psilocybin in 30 HIV positive study participants suffering from Major Depressive Disorder.”
Cannsun describes itself as a “bio-pharmaceutical company focused on developing and commercializing new medicines to optimize human potential with operations in South Africa and Thailand.”
Donaghue Woodman, Head of Research and Development at Cannsun Group PLC says:
“It is vitally important to have a deeper understanding of how woman respond to medical treatment for major depression versus men in order to develop psychedelic therapies and treatment protocols for women that have clinically significant outcomes that are safe and effective. This research to be conducted in South Africa follows a globally renewed interest in psychedelics aimed at exploring the treatment benefits of these previously misunderstood compounds.”
Mental health disorders are one of the leading causes of disease burden in the world, according to a 30-year global systematic analysis published in Lancet Psychiatry. As MDD is one of the more prevalent co-morbidities in HIV and in women, where an estimated 7.7 million people are living with HIV in South Africa, the trial will to be conducted in an all-female HIV positive group. Women have previously been underrepresented in clinical trials related to mental health, trials where women were included, the published results were not gender specific.
SA Trials to be done by TASK
Cannsun Medicinals has contracted TASK, a South African-based clinical research institute to conduct the clinical trial.
TASK is a multinational clinical research institute which conducts clinical trials to determine the treatment effects of novelties in healthcare and offers services in conducting complex clinical trials in a wide variety of therapeutic areas.
Established in 2005, TASK is a renowned research specialist organization in infectious diseases, most notably in tuberculosis, COVID-19 treatment and vaccines and has been published and mentioned in several leading journals, notably in the New England Journal of Medicine. Similarly, TASK’s founder Professor Andreas Diacon has been celebrated by the Bill and Melinda Gate’s Foundation as a ‘hero in the field’ for his contribution to TB drug development.
“The TASK team are proud to have been selected by the Cannsun group to conduct this ground-breaking trial, first in our unique African population. We look forward to making progress in the treatment of mental health disorders and to the influence this trial may have in generating further investment in psychiatric research with innovative compounds.” Duncan McDonald, Head of Business Development at TASK.
Stellenbosch University closely involved in upcoming psilocybin clinical trials
TASK will work in conjunction with Soraya Seedat, a distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Executive Head of the Department of Psychiatry at Stellenbosch University. She has more than 20 years of clinical, epidemiological and basic neuroscience research experience as a psychiatrist.
She has also been the recipient of several awards including the World Federation of the Society of Biological Psychiatry Fellowship, the Lundbeck Institute Fellowship Award in Psychiatry, an MRC mid-career award, research fellowship from the University of California San Diego, the Anxiety Disorders Association of America Career Development Award, the Humboldt Research Award in memory of Neville Alexander, the Chancellor’s Award for Research from Stellenbosch University and an MRC Gold Merit Award.
“Mental health is a global pursuit, and we are hopeful this research may bring advancement of treatment of depression and anxiety illness. Our research will be conducted in South Africa where women’s heath in a clinical setting is underrepresented, 25% of the adult women population between ages 15-49 are HIV positive. Our R&D team at Cannsun aim to further advance medical treatments in South Africa utilizing emerging medicines.” David Parry, Chief Executive Officer at Cannsun Group PLC.