Outlier presidential candidate George Wajackoyah’s claims about the handsome returns legalising marijuana could net Kenya’s economy are popular on social media. But they don’t pan out.
Wajackoyah is incorrect to say a “sack” of marijuana costs US$3.2 million, and that Canada earned $487 billion from the drug in 2021. Also incorrect are claims that the US has decriminalised marijuana in all states and Israel is the world’s biggest producer.
And his claims that marijuana has been legalised in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Morocco and Rwanda are misleading. The claim that Malawi’s president has called for tobacco to be uprooted and replaced with marijuana also misleads.
Many expect Kenya’s presidential race to be a straight shootout between deputy president William Ruto and ex-premier Raila Odinga, who rather oddly enjoys the support of the departing president Uhuru Kenyatta.
Polls suggest the 62-year-old could attract a youth vote disgruntled with establishment politics. A key reason for his appeal is a contrarian campaign. He proposes to hang the corrupt, suspend the constitution and introduce a four-day workweek.
But it is his plan to legalise and commercialise marijuana that has many talking – and the clergy hot under the collar. Wajackoyah, who leads the suitably titled Roots Party, says proceeds would help offset debt to China. He often says he will smoke his first joint as soon as he is sworn in.
By whatever name, illegal in Kenya
A Kenyan on TikTok picked up Wajackoyah’s revenue claims and did the maths, concluding the idea was viable. The resulting video has attracted more than 440,000 views, was reposted on Twitter and is doing the rounds on WhatsApp.
Africa Check has asked Wajackoyah’s campaign for the source of his figures.
In the Citizen TV interview in June, Wajackoyah said there were “special sacks scientifically made for marijuana”. He added that a full sack goes for “US$3.2 million”.
In his later interviews Wajackoyah said one gram of marijuana costs “$78” and one sack costs “$302 million”. (Note: His figures vary widely, and we have sought clarification from his office.)
Nonetheless, is there a “special sack” of marijuana that costs $3.2 million, or even $302 million?
First, how is marijuana packaged?
Pardo told Africa Check that cannabis for legal retail or medical sale “has to be packaged in special ways to make the product inaccessible to children and to safeguard against tampering”.
Pardo said there were “larger wholesale packaging requirements to prevent buyers and sellers cheating regulators through tamper-proof pouches that cannot be resealed after opening”.
“But those are often inexpensive mylar or plastic bags,” he said.
The drug is also legal in that country. Armstrong drew our attention to packaging regulations for Canada’s retail marijuana. These require that it’s sold in small packs, also measured in grams. Armstrong also sent us some examples of marijuana packaging.
“I can’t think of any reason why there will need to be any ‘special sacks’ for packaging marijuana,” he told Africa Check.
“It is roughly like tobacco. You can package it in a little tin, a zip-locking bag, or in the form of marijuana cigarettes.”
Does the maths add up?
Pardo also sent us the average market prices in Colorado. The US state legalised weed in 2012 and is now said to have a “mature marijuana market”. Its prices fell from $1,316 in January 2020 to $799 in April 2022, per pound (454 grams) of the retail bud, the plant’s flowering stage.
So in 2022, $3.2 million could buy about 1,818 kilograms of legal Colorado marijuana – close on two tonnes.
“I don’t think there is a bag big enough for that amount of cannabis,” Pardo told Africa Check.
The prices Wajackoyah gives for marijuana are excessive, and there are no special “scientifically made” sacks for its packaging. We rate the claim as incorrect. – Alphonce Shiundu
Could marijuana sales extinguish Kenya’s public debt?
“The amount of revenue you could generate from legalisation of marijuana even if you did it in the absolute best possible way, is pretty modest,” he told Africa Check.
These revenues were not trivial, Miron said, but didn’t compare favourably to the size of budget deficits.
And marijuana is just one thing people spend their money on. It would still have to compete with alcohol, tobacco, food and other expenses on basic needs, he said.
“Even if you tax it at a moderately higher rate and avoid generating a black market, it is not going to make a fundamental difference to the budget imbalances that most economies are experiencing,” Miron said.
Wajackoyah offered up more examples of marijuana’s rewards. “Canada last year alone got US$487 billion out of marijuana,” he said.
Dr Daniel Myran is a public health physician and a fellow at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. With Armstrong, he co-wrote the April 2022 article about Canada’s marijuana sales during the Covid pandemic.
“Those numbers are inaccurate and hundreds of times higher than the value of cannabis sold in Canada,” Myran told Africa Check.
Armstrong added that the claim was wildly unrealistic.
Armstrong directed Africa Check to a dashboard from Canada’s data agency for the most recent numbers on the retail sales of legal recreational cannabis products. In 2021 this totalled CA$3.835 billion (about US$2.98 billion).
“If we take April 2022 sales and multiply by 12, we get a current annualised sales rate of CA$4.46 billion in 2022,” he added. “Canada also allows legal sales of medical cannabis, but the market is much smaller. Sales in 2021 were roughly CA$458 million.”
All the evidence we have seen shows that Canada did not generate US$487 billion from marijuana in 2021. And the claimed amount is in fact higher than Canada’s total budgetary spending for its 2020/21 financial year. – Makinia Juma
Wajackoyah’s timeline for this claim works out to mid-May 2022.
On 1 April 2022, the US house of representatives approved a bill to decriminalise marijuana. The bill is now before the US senate. Until it is passed by the senate and assented to by the president, marijuana remains illegal.
“US federal law makes it illegal in every state, including the ones that have passed cannabis [legalisation] laws,” said Armstrong.
“However, the federal law is not enforced inside states with cannabis laws: the US Congress forbids federal enforcement against state-authorised medical cannabis via a temporary law.”
Armstrong added that US presidential administrations had chosen not to enforce federal law against state-authorised recreational cannabis.
Harvard University’s Miron confirmed that marijuana “is still illegal in the US”.
“For banking purposes, almost all banks are federally supervised. The rules of the federal system say a bank can’t do business with an illegal activity,” he told Africa Check.
“So, if you are a state-legalised marijuana store and you want to deposit your revenues in a normal bank … you can’t do any of that stuff.” – Alphonce Shiundu
In 2018, David Parirenyatwa, then Zimbabwe’s health minister, announced the legalisation of cannabis production. He also issued regulations guiding the production of cannabis for medicinal and scientific purposes.
All producers must be licensed and adhere to strict production, distribution and security protocols.
In 2020, Zimbabwe’s agriculture marketing authority issued regulations on growing industrial hemp. Its definition of “industrial hemp” included “the plant cannabis sativa and any part of the plant including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts and cannabinoids”.
We therefore rate this claim misleading. (Note: Africa Check defines a misleading verdict as one where elements of the claim are accurate, but presented in a way that is misleading.) – Tess Wandia
A media summary said the decision “decriminalises the use or possession of cannabis by an adult in private for that adult person’s personal consumption in private” and “the cultivation of cannabis by an adult in a private place for that adult’s personal consumption in private”.
“However, the use or possession of cannabis by a child anywhere, or by an adult in public, is not decriminalised,” the summary said.
While it is legal to consume marijuana in private, public consumption is still prohibited. – Tess Wandia
Marijuana production and use has existed in Morocco for years under what researchers at the Mohammed V University have called “a subtle mix of prohibition and tolerance”.
Interior minister Abdelouafi Laftit said feasibility studies had “demonstrated real and promising economic and social opportunities”.
But recreational use is still prohibited. – Tess Wandia
The board sent us data that showed the United Kingdom was the biggest producer of cannabis in 2020, with 238.7 tonnes, or 36.7% of the global market. Israel was the fourth-largest producer with 24.6 tonnes.
The report shows that Morocco has the biggest area under cannabis cultivation. This was 47,500 hectares in 2018, but dropped to 21,048 hectares in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available. – Dancan Bwire
In June 2021, Rwanda published new rules to govern the cultivation, processing, export and security of cannabis for medical purposes.
Does this mean it is legal? “Marijuana is illegal in Rwanda. There is a recent exception for commercial cultivation of medical cannabis,” Yolande Makolo, the Rwanda government’s spokesperson, told Africa Check.
Makolo also shared a 2020 brief with the legal context on the framework for the production of medical cannabis in Rwanda.
“Medical cannabis produced in Rwanda is solely for export markets,” the brief says. – Dancan Bwire
Malawi is a major tobacco producer, with the leaf being the country’s leading foreign exchange earner.
Wajackoyah claimed Malawi president Lazarus Chakwera had asked his citizens to “uproot tobacco” due to “inadequate” proceeds, and “grow marijuana”. He has also claimed he has been invited to Malawi as an “ally”.
In his state of the nation address on 12 May 2022, Chakwera said Malawi’s reliance on tobacco was “seriously threatened by declining demand worldwide”.
“Clearly, we need to diversify and grow other cash crops like cannabis which was legalised last year for industrial and medicinal use,” Chakwera said.
Sean Kampondeni, the president’s spokesperson, told Africa Check that Chakwera had not asked Malawians to uproot tobacco.
“The Malawi president has never called for the uprooting of tobacco. What he has said is that his vision is to diversify agricultural production,” he said.
We therefore rate the claim as misleading. – Dancan Bwire