A candidate eying Kenya’s deputy presidency in the upcoming elections recently made a spirited case for the legalisation of marijuana. She argued that people in the country already used the prohibited substance as medicine.
Justina Wamae is the running mate of Roots Party of Kenya presidential candidate George Wajackoyah. If their ticket wins the 9 August 2022 elections, she would become deputy president. The party has campaigned on a controversial agenda of legalising marijuana.
“Most medicine is made out of marijuana: the medicine for epilepsy, cerebral palsy, chronic pain,” Wamae said during a deputy presidential debate in July.
Is this so? We asked the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates drugs in the country, and the National Institute of Drug Abuse, a US government research think tank.
There is an epilepsy drug made from marijuana plant extracts.
Marijuana has many names, including ganja, weed and dagga. In Kenya, where it and other plants from the genus cannabis are illegal, it’s also known as bhang.
An FDA spokesperson sent us a link to a page on its website that describes its regulation of cannabis and cannabidiol, known as CBD.
Cannabidiol is a natural compound in the cannabis plant. Unlike other cannabis compounds such as tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, cannabidiol does not by itself produce the marijuana “high”.
The FDA has approved an oral solution of CBD called Epidiolex, “for the treatment of seizures associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or Dravet syndrome in patients 1 years of age and older”.
Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome are severe forms of epilepsy.
“Controlled clinical trials testing the safety and efficacy of a drug, along with careful review through the FDA’s drug approval process, is the most appropriate way to bring cannabis-derived treatments to patients,” the FDA spokesperson told us.
Epidiolex had been adequately reviewed, they added.
“That means the FDA has concluded that this particular drug product is safe and effective for these indicated uses.”
Cerebral palsy includes a group of conditions with symptoms such as difficulty moving and muscle stiffness or spasticity.
It is caused by damage to the part of the brain that controls the muscles. This damage can occur before, during or after birth.
There are ongoing studies about using medical marijuana to treat spasticity in patients with severe forms of cerebral palsy.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse (Nida) sent us a research report that showed the FDA had approved two drugs containing elements of marijuana. The FDA confirmed this.
A Nida spokesperson told Africa Check the medications “use purified chemicals derived from or based on components of marijuana, also known as cannabinoids (CBD, THC)”.
The two drugs have the generic names of dronabinol and nabilone. They are prescribed in pill form for the “treatment of nausea in patients undergoing cancer chemotherapy and to stimulate appetite in patients with wasting syndrome due to Aids”.
The human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, attacks the immune system, making the body vulnerable to other infections. If left untreated, it can progress to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or Aids.
“Researchers continue to explore potential uses of cannabinoids for other health indications,” Nida told Africa Check.
What about chronic pain?
While some US states had approved “therapeutic uses of botanical forms of cannabis … for patients with qualifying conditions, including pain”, these were not yet backed by credible research, the FDA told Africa Check.
“These state programmes allowing therapeutic uses of cannabis are not, to our knowledge, based on review of data from adequate well-controlled trials of the quality to support a new drug approval by the FDA.”
The spokesperson said the FDA “has not approved botanical forms of cannabis for any therapeutic use to date”.
Nonetheless, Nida sent us current research, a 2017 report on the use of marijuana to treat chronic pain.
The report says that clinical trials support the use of cannabis to treat pain. But “very little is known about the efficacy, dose, routes of administration, or side effects of commonly used and commercially available cannabis products in the US”.
Wamae is right that marijuana can be used to treat pain. The report’s conclusion is that there is “substantial evidence that cannabis is an effective treatment for chronic pain in adults”.
Her claims about epilepsy and cerebral palsy are also on good ground. Drugs containing marijuana compounds can treat both conditions.
But her statement that “most medicine is made out of marijuana” is debatable.
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