America Is Still Fighting a War on Marijuana—In Congo

Jacob Kushner
May 23, 2018

The Democratic Republic of Congo is known best for its robust but troubled mining sector, which attracts 80 percent of the country’s Foreign Direct Investment but generates only 10 percent of its tax revenue. But far less attention is paid to Congo’s agriculture, which generates 42 percent of its GDP and involves the majority of the Congolese population. Only recently have researchers become aware of the extent to which some of eastern Congo’s small-scale farmers are benefiting from a surprising—and illegal—crop.

Cannabis has become a major source of income for tens of thousands of farmers in Congo’s unstable east. It isn’t hard to see the appeal. “Cannabis (is) a robust plant which is easy to grow, requires little labor outside of harvesting and drying, yields several harvests per year, and can be harvested as early as six months from sowing,” writes Ann Laudati, a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has interviewed more than 100 cannabis farmers in eastern Congo. “They’re making a living off it,” said Laudati. “They’re not getting rich, but they’re surviving.”

Congo isn’t alone. “The highest levels of cannabis production in the world take place on the African continent,” according to the UN. In 2005, Africa produced an estimated one-fourth of all global cannabis, and 38 million Africans—nearly 8 percent of the adult population—use pot each year, far above the global average. In 2005, seventeen African countries reported that cannabis use was on the rise, including Congo.

“Marijuana is widely used in the DRC,” according to the 2011 U.S. International Narcotics Control Strategy report. “Congolese authorities believe that the use of marijuana … has increased steadily over past years.” Be it by land or by sea, the drug also makes its way outside Congo’s porous borders. Quite possibly it’s what’s being smoked by western expats and humanitarians in African cities as far away as Nairobi.

But there’s one major factor limiting the crop’s proliferation: Cannabis is illegal in Congo, as it is in almost every African country. Since 2011, there have been more cannabis seizures in Africa than anywhere else in the world.

Africa’s crackdown on cannabis reflects an international narrative that blames cannabis for all manner of the continent’s ills. “Cannabis comprises the most important drug problem in Africa,” according to the UN. That statement is the product of a century of European and U.S. pressure meant to stop it. According to the RAND Corporation, “in no Western country is a user at much risk of being criminally penalized for using marijuana.” At a time when the United States is rapidly decriminalizing marijuana at home, it continues to endorse a narrative that demonizes the drug abroad.

False Narratives

“The narrative is, ‘you get drugged up and drugs lead to rape by soldiers or rebels,” Laudati told me. “According to these narratives, cannabis presents the stimulus for armed actors to engage in violent acts most notably rape and the murder of one’s family members.”

But there’s little evidence to suggest marijuana induces armed actors to commit crimes that they wouldn’t otherwise. Laudati reviewed numerous studies that examined possible links between marijuana use and violence to argue, convincingly, that while some noted correlation between the two, none could demonstrate that the drug actually caused violent behavior. She concludes that “the drug’s association with fueling war time rape has arguably become yet another ‘dangerous tale’ for (mis) understanding Congo’s violence.”

It’s a tale that is told repeatedly by news media as well as advocacy organizations and NGOs. In a 2003 Guardian article titled “Chaos and cannibalism under Congo‘s bloody skies,” filmmaker Sam Kiely wrote about an attack on UN officers by child soldiers of now-convicted war criminal Thomas Lubanga. “Drunken, red-eyed youths and heavily armed children high on marijuana fingered their weapons, flashed their knives,” he wrote, leaving readers to assume that marijuana was somehow complicit in their actions.

In 2003, Amnesty International published the account of a 15-year-old child soldier recruited by an Eastern Congolese militia who said that, “After capturing a village, what happened was that they would give us chanvre [cannabis] and force us to kill people to toughen us up.”

“Before killing, you first have to smoke some chanvre—when you do that, it stops the spirit of the person you’ve killed from entering inside you,’” the boy told Amnesty. The advocacy organization neglected to point out the obvious fact that not marijuana, but psychological manipulation is what persuades children carry out acts of violence the world around.

“Everyone’s always looking for the next sexy narrative about Congo, and cannabis seems to fill that niche,” said Laura Seay, assistant professor of Government at Colby College and longtime Congo researcher. “The heart of darkness tropes, the tropes about savagery. There’s this sort of portrayal that everyone in Eastern Congo is either a rape victim or a rapist. I think the ‘conflict cannabis’ narrative further supports that—wild eyed men who are irrational actors, behaving crazily.”

Such narratives are meant to allow us to ignore the real culprits: “the fight against corruption, and the reform of the state” argues Séverine Autesserre, professor of political science at Barnard College. Even more prominent than ‘conflict cannabis’ are narratives about sexual violence. “Margot Wallström, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, has dubbed the eastern Congo the ‘rape capital of the world’ and the ‘most dangerous place on earth to be a woman’, which are labels that journalists, advocates, and aid workers have used ad nauseam ever since,” writes Autesserre in a 2012 study titled “Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and Their Unintended Consequences.”

That narrative has enormous consequences, diverting “attention from other forms of violence that are equally horrific, such as non-sexual torture, killings, and recruitment of child soldiers,” writes Autesserre. It also fuels a cycle that elevates sexual violence further still. “Congolese women know that often the best, and sometimes the only way to obtain care is to claim to have been raped.”

Sexual violence isn’t the only realm where popular narratives have done tangible harm. “In case after case, when narratives put forth that oversimplify and exoticize, it always leads to bad policy decisions,” Seay told me.

Seay has researched extensively the consequences of narratives about Congo’s conflict minerals trade. “My team and I interviewed so many people who were affected by the lost revenue when it became impossible to sell Tantalum” and other so-called “conflict minerals” in 2010 after advocacy groups led by the Enough Project pressured Congress to pass a law ordering companies sourcing this minerals in Congo to document their supply lines, or admit when they were unable to. The effect was that thousands of small-time Congolese miners lost their work, and entire local economies suffered.

“Nurses had to throw away medicine that expired because no one was coming to their clinics. Schools closed down because families couldn’t’ pay for their kids to go to school. Children even died, all because the advocacy narrative was wrong,” said Seay.

“The people who pushed the conflict minerals narrative, they walked away scot-free. They destroyed communities. And the communities had to pay the cost of them getting things wrong,” said Seay. She says similar consequences could arise if the “conflict cannabis” narrative gains similar prominence.

“Given the U.S. history of involvement and interference in central Africa … it does seem like fear mongering around cannabis and the cannabis trade in East Africa is a misplaced focus,” Seay told me. “There are so many other things that really make people’s lives terrible. And there are so many places where there are far more dangerous drugs being trafficked, and people being trafficked along with those drugs. It feels like going down to wrong path to focus so heavily on weed.”

“Worst case scenario, this leads to a Latin American-style drug war,” said Seay. Though she doubts it will come to that point, “stranger things have happened. AFRICOM could use a win. And there are crazy ideas of what a win might look like, especially under the current administration,” she said. But as always, “It won’t be AFRICOM that bears the consequences of that, it’ll be the people.” 

The history of U.S. anti-cannabis policy in Africa

To this day, “Cannabis is seen as Africa’s most problematic drug,” writes Laudati, citing AFRICOM and African Union statements against it. The UN routinely echoes such sentiments. “Whether we are talking about illicit cultivation, production, trafficking or use, the world drug problem is closely interlinked with development challenges—a fact that has also been clearly recognized by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” said Yury Fedotov, the director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The UN continues to publish reports associating cannabis use with violence at the same time that its own peacekeepers—the very people tasked with stopping that violence—are themselves using the drug. One 2008 study found that Indian peacekeepers in Congo were buying cannabis from the FDLR, one of the rebel groups they are ostensibly fighting.

Western cannabis policy in central Africa dates back to the 19th Century, when Belgians ruling over what is now Congo encouraged the drug’s use. Some were even rumored to partake. But in the early 1900s they changed their tune, criminalizing the drug.

In 1961, the U.S. lobbied the UN to pass the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which forbid international trade of cannabis. In the half-century since, the U.S. hasn‘t relented in opposing the crop internationally, even though nine states and Washington, D.C., have fully legalized marijuana use, and 29 have approved it for medicinal purposes.

Countries including France, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada objected to the UN’s zero-tolerance approach during the 2015 UN Economic and Social Council‘s Commission on Narcotic Drugs. But the U.S. vetoed their move to reclassify the drug into a less dangerous category of narcotics.

Nonetheless, in September, Lesotho, a small nation surrounded by South Africa, where cannabis is the foremost cash crop, approved the cultivation of medical marijuana. And a recent court decision in South Africa will make private recreational use legal there in 2019.

But other African nations have enacted new restrictions on the drug. Namibia ratified the UN Drug Convention, which outlaws cannabis, in early 2009 and hosted the Heads of Narcotics and Law Enforcement Agencies (HONLEA) conference later that year—a conference attended by Congolese officials. Gambia and Sudan, Côte d‘Ivoire and Comoros, Swaziland and Guinea all signed on to the UN Drug Convention since 2012.

Many African leaders condemn cannabis despite that it is grown in at least 19 of the continent’s 54 nations and consumed in even more. Laudati says it’s precisely this criminalization that creates opportunities for corruption and violence. “The real danger stems from the fact that these things cannot be reported. As traders and growers are acting strictly outside the legal framework, they cannot resort to the protection of state agents (police, army and so on) in the case of foul play or wrongful doing,” she writes.

Put simply, “If you’re traveling with a sack of hens and you get stopped by a Congo army national, they’re not gonna want to arrest you. That’s not to their benefit,” Laudati explains. But “you can’t go to someone and say ‘they stole my hemp,’ because hemp is illegal.” Soldiers and police officers use the law to their advantage, to extort people in the cannabis business. “And they can do so in violent ways.”

Congolese soldiers profit from the cannabis trade, most commonly through the collection of bribes at military checkpoints. Likely those who profit most are higher up the chain of power. Dignitaries under Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko famously made millions of dollars from the black market marijuana trade.

It needn’t be so. “Far from the traffic being the purview of doped-up youth gangs, petty criminals, warlords, or corrupt officials, a substantial percentage of the trade is made up by everyday citizens, many of whom rely on the trade to meet basic requirements not being met at the household,” writes Laudati.

According to the World Bank, 63 percent of Congolese live below the poverty line. But in Eastern Congo, some farmers have already switched from traditional food crops to cannabis.

Who will profit?

Even if the U.S. were to revert course—and if African nations followed suit—the drug’s legalization could wind up reinforcing existing inequalities if not properly implemented. The market could become dominated by companies whose owners have capital to invest in large-scale production, says David Martin, co-founder of a rural development incubator in a cannabis-cultivating region of South Africa.

There are “big challenges” to legalization, Martin told me. “If marijuana farming becomes a controlled but legal enterprise, then it is clear that South Africa’s mostly white, commercial farming sector will grab the opportunity to grow this high value crop and thus reinforce South Africa’s existing economic and spatial inequalities.”

Currently in South Africa, “you’ve got the poorest people in the country growing the stuff,” but often it’s middle class middlemen marking up the price, and the wealthiest consuming it. The result is that farmers “risk their lives growing marijuana to feed their families. Many of them are sitting in jail right now for growing and selling the same substance that hipsters can smoke openly on Cape Town’s beaches and restaurant balconies,” wrote Martin.

Cannabis is poised to become a source of income and marginal prosperity in parts of Africa—if only the international powers that be would stop pretending that it is the root of all ills. “So long as it’s illegal,” said Seay, “It’s not a reliable source of income. (and) I don’t think in my lifetime we’re gonna see USAID subsidizing weed farmers in eastern Congo.”

“In the U.S. and in Europe we’re opening up the gates now,” says Laudati, of recent legalization measures. “Suddenly we’re shifting the narrative.” But in Africa the gates remain definitively closed due to the foreign policy of those same western powers. By pressuring Congo to keep cannabis illegal and to step up enforcement and punishments, the U.S. and international bodies are reinforcing a system of patronage that empowers anyone with a gun, but disempowers the everyday farmer. Farmers in places like Congo who see cannabis as a profitable, stable crop must grow it at their peril.


Jacob Kushner is the author of China’s Congo Plan and writes about migration, development, and foreign aid issues in Africa, the Caribbean and Germany.

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