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Navigating Cannabis Use in Legal and Illegal Contexts Across Continents: An Interview

Cannabis use in Nigeria and worldwide is a complex and multifaceted issue. Referred to as igbo*, ganja, weed, marijuana, and several other monikers, Cannabis has garnered a contentious reputation in Nigeria. While cannabis use is illegal in Nigeria, it is consumed by many young people and openly celebrated by its users. Since the early 1990s, Nigerian movies and popular music have been dominated by portrayals of cannabis consumption. A similar story has played out in the United States. Until recently, cannabis use was illegal in most states, but Cannabis remained one of the most consumed and celebrated substances among young people. Studies conducted in the United States found that among the top 1000 songs in the early 2000s, 13-18% made references to cannabis use [1,2].


Several weeks ago, I contacted a 25-year-old Nigerian man who now lives in the United States and uses Cannabis. He was kind enough to share his experiences of navigating the legal considerations of using Cannabis in different contexts and also regarding the media's portrayal of Cannabis.


Please note that identifying information like name, age, and location have been changed for safety reasons.


Hello Felami, thank you for speaking with me. Can you recall the first time you heard about Cannabis, marijuana, or weed… whichever name you're most comfortable calling it?


My earliest memory of recreational drugs was in primary school. I first heard the word, igbo* from older boys in my neighborhood and school. Then I heard it in movies and music (for example, 9ice's Ganja Man). Everyone talked about smoking igbo in those days. I was curious, but no one would tell me more or offer it to me because I was a child. The next best thing was a cigarette, but I was also too afraid to ask anyone for that, so I would pick up discarded cigarette butts from the ground to recreate what I had seen in movies.


What???


*laughs* In hindsight, that was disgusting and dangerous, but I was barely eight, so I did not know better.


Fair. So, when was your first personal experience with Cannabis?


I was around 17 years old, in my first year of university. I think it was in the form of edibles. Some people cooked beans with Cannabis, and I tried it. Then the first time I actually smoked it was when someone offered me a wrap some months later. Both times, I felt a weird sensation, like a tingling feeling around my body. My body felt foreign to me. That's the best way I can describe it. The feeling lasted for about three days because consuming it in food takes a longer time to take effect. I also tried to smoke it on another occasion, and that experience lasted about two days.


Were there any side effects apart from the tingling sensation?

No, not really. I just tend to feel lazy and sluggish when I use it, but it also makes me feel more relaxed and carefree.


Did you ever wonder about the dose or seek any information about the dose you were taking?


I did not really have any concerns with the dose when I was smoking, but with edibles, I was more cautious because the first time I tried it, I consumed too much, and the effect lasted for three days, so I became more careful about the amount I consumed.


How did you source Cannabis in Nigeria?


I was able to source Cannabis from two different locations. The first was while I was in school in Osun State, and it was pretty easy to get. The second was during my time serving as a National Youth Corp member in Kwara State, and it was also readily available. The first location was situated in a residential area which made it difficult to hide, whereas the second was more accessible and known to many buyers. Everyone knew the best place to get weed was the "bunk," where people would gather to smoke. It was located behind an army barracks. The first time I went there, I was surprised to see up to 20 people smoking in different corners. I asked about the likelihood of the army officers or police arresting us and was informed that police raids were uncommon. We were surprised a few times by police patrols, but we were usually informed beforehand, so it wasn't a problem. Some people I smoked with had friends in the force who alerted them if they planned to raid. There were also some rules, like not making too much noise after a particular time. This was my second encounter with smoking in a bunk. My first experience wasn't necessarily a bunk, but rather a mountain top where people went to smoke. As time passed, we discovered different sides of the mountain where we could smoke.


Did you strike a friendship with the people you smoked with in these places?


Not at all. There was no camaraderie there. I was not interested in developing friendships because I believed these places often attracted people with questionable characters, including cultists and armed robbers. Of course, I wasn't interested in forming alliances with such people. I just wanted to smoke in peace and go home. The funny thing is that I felt safer on the mountaintop, which was a popular spot for smoking, compared to the bunk, which was more dangerous. I was cautious because I was from a small town and knew that the police could turn up at any time.


Earlier, you mentioned learning about Cannabis from movies and songs like Ganja Man. Tell me about how that experience shaped you.


Yes, the media played a big role. I remember a movie called "Rockers" which featured a character who smoked a lot of weed. The character was a cool university boy who all the girls wanted to be with. He was of questionable character because he was part of a cult, but he was soft-spoken and a hopeless romantic. That dichotomy of personality was fascinating to me. I think the media portrays weed as a drug people with dangerous tendencies consume, but it balances it out by showing them as just people too. I also think the effects are accurately depicted. They reflect how I feel when I take weed as well. I also grew up consuming a lot of American media, but I mostly saw movies about other drugs like heroin and cocaine use there, which seemed way too risky even for me. The portrayals of weed users were also extreme – uneducated, dangerous and poor. The songs, however, had more content on cannabis use that I found more palatable. The singers were just having a good time. Movies and music from both countries started the curiosity to try these drugs because I could 'see' or 'hear' someone I admired using it. I think the portrayal of weed in music had more of an effect on me than in movies or TV. Some songs seem like they're meant to be listened to when you're high. Music can influence my mood and make me want to smoke weed. As a young person, you are impressionable but like I said, even though I saw cocaine use, that was a line I vowed never to cross. So eventually I think it boils down to what you want to do. Now, I usually smoke weed when I'm less busy and have nothing to do, so it's not a continued influence from the media.


Tell me about your experience with Cannabis in the United States


When I came to the United States, I lived in rural Delaware where weed is legal. When I first arrived, I was happy to be in a place where I did not have to find bunks and hide from the police. I had a friend who got hers from a local dealer recommended by her gym instructor, as her previous source was no longer available. I believe she may have had another connection or was also relying on a friend for supply, but she helped me get it whenever I needed. When she was not available, I had a dispensary to get my weed, but I could only find one that I was comfortable visiting, several miles from where I lived. The first thing I realized was that I was still afraid despite living in a place where what I was doing was not illegal. Making that mental shift has been hard. Another thing is that the price of weed is crazy expensive compared to Nigeria. In Nigeria, I could get N600 ($0.82) worth of weed to last me a whole week. So, the cost was high, and I couldn't be spending $60 every other day. Secondly, I didn't want to have work to do under the influence every day, so I immediately selected once or twice a month, depending on how my schedule is. It's stickier in Oklahoma, where I currently live. It is illegal in this state to take Cannabis if it's not for medical reasons. I am new here though, so I am still trying to find my way around, but I still have my old stash to keep me going. My friend suggested that I get a card that will allow me buy weed for medical purposes. She says that everyone is doing it and that at least one of the medical issues permitted for cannabis use will apply to me because it is a really extensive list, but I don't know yet. I am still thinking about it. I am worried it may affect my immigration status. It's hard to think of all these laws every time I visit a new state. It's tiring.


What are your thoughts on the legality of cannabis and cannabis use in general?


In comparison to other drugs I've tried, I would say Cannabis is a much safer option, so the government of Nigeria, especially needs to chill. Governments should spend more time and resources creating safe spaces for people instead of criminalizing people who are not hurting anyone. I also advocate that people should be responsible in their consumption of any recreational drug including Cannabis. Don't operate machinery, drive or make important decisions under the influence of substances, things like that. Just be safe and don't endanger people's lives because you want to have a good time.

On the other hand, I've seen individuals who overuse Cannabis and become dependent on it, which made me realize that I don't want to be addicted to any substance, so I understand why the government of these countries want to put strict measures in place. But as we can see, these measures are not working. People are using it every day. I think as long as people don't make it a habit and use it responsibly, it should be okay.


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Cannabis has been a controversial topic of debate for years, with opinions varying widely among people of different political and socioeconomic classes. Our interviewee, Felami, developed his views on Cannabis through movies and songs. These media outlets played a significant role in shaping his understanding of cannabis use, but it is his country/state of residence that dictates how he buys and uses Cannabis. While navigating the different legal environments is a stressor for all Cannabis users, immigrants like Felami have an additional level of anxiety surrounding their use. Like many others, Felami believes cannabis use is a personal choice that should be free of judgment and persecution in every country and that he should not have to hide in the first place. After all, isn't the ability to make our own decisions a fundamental aspect of individual freedom? Felami's opinion on marijuana is not an uncommon one. Many people feel they should have the right to choose what they put into their bodies, and the government should not interfere with that choice. However, some vehemently disagree, citing concerns about addiction, health risks, and public safety.

Regardless of where one stands on the issue, it's important to remember that each individual has unique experiences and perspectives shaping their understanding of Cannabis. As our understanding of cannabis shifts and changes with more scientific evidence, we must listen to all viewpoints and work towards finding common ground. Only then can we hope to move forward in a constructive and productive manner.



 

Feature image: Cooking with Cannabis (Netflix)

Editorial Note: This post is part of the Pharmaceutical Inequalities series, funded by the Holtz Center and the Evjue Foundation.



References

1. Roberts, D. F., Henriksen, L., & Christenson, P. G. (1999). Substance use in popular movies and music. Office of National Drug Control Policy; Washington, DC.

2. Primack, B. A., Dalton, M. A., Carroll, M. V., Agarwal, A. A., & Fine, M. J. (2008). Content analysis of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs in popular music. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 162, 169-175.



*igbo is a Nigerian slang for Cannabis; not to be mistaken with the tribe, Igbo


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