Nigeria debates whether to legalize marijuana. His House of Representatives wants to discuss a corresponding bill. The Conversation Africa’s Wale Fatade asked Olakunle Idowu, a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry, to explain the science behind the debate.
Is There a Scientific Basis for Legalizing Marijuana?
The Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica plant contains several phytochemicals – cannabinoids – with a variety of pharmacological effects. Its multiple effects are the reason some people use marijuana and also the reason others feel it shouldn’t be legalized. While it has a pleasant effect, the active doses also have several side effects.
A special phytochemicals – delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – found in the leaves, flowers and resins of the plant is responsible for the euphoria that cannabis users experience. It reacts with specific receptors in the brain. This “high” is sometimes associated with addiction and crime.
On the other hand, cannabidiol (CBD), which is also found in the plant, is a compound that does not interact with this receptor. It does not affect a person’s mental state, but it has properties that have been found to be useful in treating anxiety and epilepsy.
Cannabidiol oil is commercially available in some pharmacies in Nigeria. It is sold as a dietary supplement.
To make matters worse, the possible effects of the chemicals on humans depend on the type of plant, the variety. The strain grown as industrial hemp for fiber and biodiesel is much richer in CBD than THC.
In essence, legalizing marijuana would mean addressing some scientific issues for safety reasons. These are:
Determining the specific variety of cannabis plant in the country, and
the amounts of phytochemicals – THC and CBD – that are present in these strains. The geography (terrain, soil quality and chemistry) influences the composition and the relative amounts of phytochemicals.
What scientific challenges would Nigeria face in legalizing marijuana?
One challenge is having the scientific ability to judge what is legal and what is illegal.
In the US, cannabidiol that does not produce a “high” is legal if it contains 0.3% or less of THC, the chemical that produces the “high” with its associated antisocial effects. What matters here is “quantitative phytochemistry” – the ability to accurately and reliably determine how much of a particular phytochemical is contained in a plant sample.
If THC is above the stated level, it is classified as illegal. This specification is required because THC levels are linked to drug abuse and crime tendencies.
Reliable results of quantitative phytochemistry depend on trace analysis, which requires instrumental analytical methods based on laboratory equipment that is expensive to purchase and maintain. The analytical method used in most cases is liquid chromatography with hyphen with mass spectrometry (LC-MS-MS), a special technique that is not yet common in Nigeria.
If marijuana were legal, the National Agency for Drug Administration and Control would likely have increased responsibilities.
Quality assurance would be a serious challenge. For a herbal product that varies widely in its pharmacological effects, it is difficult to obtain a safe active dose without side effects. It can have very different effects on different people, so “caution galore” is the smarter approach.
As a scientist, do you support the legalization of marijuana in Nigeria?
In my opinion, we shouldn’t legalize marijuana just yet if there is little to no research data on the plant at our universities, especially the different strains that grow in our area.
Rather, we should start with a mandate for the National Agency for Medicines Administration and Control to coordinate research activities in the country’s pharmacy schools to develop validated analytical methods for quantitative phytochemistry. Then we can determine the CBD and THC levels in a sample. The agency needs these skills to determine what is safe and what is not when counterfeiting begins. Complaints are attributed to these analytical skills when a violation of the passed laws is perceived.
A similar situation arose in the United States in 1994 when the Dietary Supplements for Health and Education Act was signed. The Dietary Supplements Bureau was established in 1995 to implement the new law and promote the safe and responsible use of dietary supplements in this country.
The conversation in Nigeria should start with what science is needed and what science skills the country has. That could certainly advance the legality of marijuana use in our country.