The referendum season may be approaching; this is a transformative time for cannabis policy in Kenya particularly as it relates to social justice and economic development.

With all indications that the Steering Committee on the Implementation of the Building Bridges to a United Kenya Task Force has focused more on the political make-up of the country- there is a need for politicians that could put forward ideas, policy proposals, and legislation that have changed the conversation around cannabis legalization.

The present-day focus on cannabis reform is in tandem with Chief Justice Maraga‘s objective to review and reform of the criminal justice system. Under this review, pioneered by the National Council on the Administration of Justice (NCAJ) Committee on Criminal Justice Reform (NCCJR)- the CJ wants significant changes in penal laws including laws that criminalize petty offenses, especially those regarding drug abuse.

The national conversation on cannabis stands at a pivotal inflection point that provides policymakers and legislators with an extraordinary opportunity to establish a policy context wherein inclusive economic opportunities can thrive in line with responsible investments to redress longstanding harms.

When politicians woo support for the BBI report, it is important for them to remedy a discriminatory past or to rectify decades of institutionalized bias, it has an obligation to thoroughly consider implicit and explicit hurdles to equity. 

President Uhuru Kenyatta (centre), Deputy President William Ruto) left) and ODM leader Raila Odinga during the launch of the BBI report at Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi on November 27, 2019. PHOTO | FILE | DPPS

Indeed, last week Kenyans experienced first hand liberalism in the conservative law practice when Mathenge Mukundi, was sworn in as a lawyer,becoming Kenya’s first advocate of the Rastafarian faith.

Nowhere is this deliberation more critical than in drug policy reform. For decades, the criminalization of drugs led to an increase in prison numbers. Speaking during after officiating graduation ceremony of 94 inmates in Mind Education and Theology courses at Kamiti Maximum Prison in July last year, Deputy Commissioner of Prisons Benjamin Njoga said the facilities are overcrowded.

“We have an average of 54,000 inmates convicted and non-convicted involving both genders. There is a bit of overcrowding since the capacity is 28,000.” Njoga said.

Besides, the War on Drugs has inflicted significant collateral damage on Kenyans, saddling young men and women with lengthy drug convictions- and setting them on a course of institutionalized disadvantage because of the crippling, collateral consequences of criminal records.

Some careers in Kenya, require a certificate of good conduct from the police, implying a criminal record on marijuana use or sale may limit many from career opportunities.

Today, amidst a thriving state-legal cannabis industry in developed countries, the same people hurt most by the drug war face the greatest barriers to participating in the emerging cannabis economy.

As elected officials consider how to reform the nation’s executive structure, they should pay attention on harsh cannabis laws and rectify these serious issues, they must erase any ambiguity about the protections, corrective actions, and inclusive opportunities intended to reverse the generation-long ills of the War on Drugs.

We argue that the BBI discussions is an opportune moment to design a comprehensive pragmatic Cannabis Opportunity Agenda: a set of policies that address the social harms of marijuana prohibition and seeks to rehabilitate impacted communities with a focus on equity, opportunity, and inclusion.

County governments should be given the power to enact laws on marijuana, to strengthen their capacity to improve the quality of life for residents.

Assume, for example, the county of Samburu legalizes marijuana- many business-minded individuals as well as users of marijuana would troop the county in large numbers.

In the US, Leafly, a cannabis research firm, estimates that the cannabis industry employed more than 211,000 full-time workers as of 2019.

The cannabis ecosystem, like other industries, depends on a robust workforce of varied skill levels and roles to support businesses in the cultivation, distribution, and retail of cannabis. 

For all the benefits that cannabis entrepreneurship offers, Kenyans would have access to vast opportunities of economic empowerment.

Presidential leadership would represent a sea change moment for the Cannabis Opportunity movement. The next president should issue an executive order to all national agencies (especially NEMA and KEMRI) to examine ways in which they can use existing legislative authority and regulatory power to reform their policies to be more inclusive of the cannabis industry and particularly the industry’s entrepreneurs.

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