WAKISO, UGANDA — For the last 10 years, Nanfuka Suzan has kept two cannabis plants in her half-acre garden. Although she knows it’s illegal to grow, she uses it to treat her poultry if they develop a fever, sleep all day or refuse to feed. Until the coronavirus pandemic, she’d never treated herself with cannabis.
But in June, she developed a dry cough, a fever and a strange pain in her nose. At first, Nanfuka, from Wakiso district in central Uganda, sought help from a clinic, but the antibiotics and painkillers she received didn’t help, she says.
Then, she saw information on Facebook that drinking a concoction of cannabis leaves boiled with garlic and ginger would rid her of what she suspected to be COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. From her garden, she picked a handful of leaves, boiled them, then drank the liquid.
“I felt some relief after two days,” she says.
Homemade remedies like these appear as Uganda’s health care system fights off surges in the coronavirus pandemic. The numbers of deaths and infections soared this summer due to more deadly variants of COVID-19, according to data from the health ministry. Health facilities ran out of beds to admit the critically ill. And the cost of treating COVID-19 burgeoned, necessitating a government investigation.
But experts warn against cannabis use for this purpose — which they say increased in the country due to misinformation on social media — citing the mental health risks.
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The psychiatric clinic at Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital has seen an increase in severe mental health cases since April 2020, when people in the region started to use cannabis to treat COVID-19 symptoms, Dr. Mark Mohan Kaggwa says.
Before the pandemic, he says, the clinic would admit about two to three patients a day with severe mental health cases. But Kaggwa says this number has increased to five to six cases a day. He believes increasing cannabis use as a COVID-19 treatment is a contributing factor.
Cannabis can be addictive even to those whose primary reason is medicinal, Kaggwa says.
Emmanuel Ainebyoona, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, acknowledges the challenges driving people to use cannabis to treat the coronavirus. But COVID-19 cases have fallen since a June surge, he says, and more people are getting vaccinated.
Still, the vaccination drive, which started in March, has been slow, according to data from the World Health Organization. Only 415,486 people had been fully vaccinated by mid-September, about 0.9% of the population.
It’s one of the frustrations driving some people like Nanfuka to seek alternative treatment in cannabis. Although the substance is becoming increasingly legal in such countries as Canada, Uruguay and the United States, laws are much stricter in most African countries, including Uganda. Possession alone can lead to 10 to 25 years imprisonment, under Uganda’s Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. Cultivation without a permit attracts a fine of three times the market value of the plant, or a minimum of five years in prison. A second offense can lead to life imprisonment.
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Even culturally, the substance faces pushback.
Nakaggwa Gladys, who works in a hair salon near Kampala, the capital, considers anyone who takes cannabis a thug. “Cannabis use is something I grew up knowing is bad to use,” she says. “I’m aware that it can stop one from thinking straight.”
Although the substance has been illegal in the country since 2019, the Ugandan government has issued licenses to companies that meet certain guidelines to grow and export it for medicinal use.
Hafsa Lukwata, acting assistant commissioner for mental health and control of substance abuse at the Ministry of Health, worries that some Ugandans have taken this limited licensing as permission for anyone to grow cannabis.
“Many have grown it in their small gardens, and this has been worsened by social media where people are spreading misinformation of how cannabis cures COVID-19,” she says.
An estimated 2.6 million Ugandans consume cannabis, which would represent 5.6% of the population, according to a 2019 report by New Frontier Data, a U.S.-based firm that analyzes global trends in the legal cannabis industry. The same report also states that “cannabis has been used in Africa for centuries for medical, ritualistic and social purposes.”
In Uganda, for example, it’s common for people to grow cannabis to treat animals.
Godfrey Nyabigo, who used it to treat his wife for COVID-19, says he accessed it through a member of his community who grows the plant to treat fever in his farm animals. “At the [public] hospital they gave her zinc, erythromycin and vitamins, but her symptoms were not going away,” he says.
The teacher feared that his wife’s symptoms might worsen, and he didn’t have the money to transport her to a good private hospital from their home in Mityana district, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Kampala. A friend recommended cannabis, cooked with aloe vera, ginger and garlic.
Nyabigo boiled the concoction and gave his wife 300 milliliters (about 1 1/4 cup) twice a day. Nyabigo, who says he’d never taken cannabis before, also drank some, believing it would protect him from contracting the virus. Within two weeks, his wife’s symptoms had disappeared.
Nyabigo says he still recommends cannabis to people in his community who want to treat COVID-19 symptoms.
While he knows it’s illegal, he had no reservations when he gave cannabis to his wife. To him, this was medicine. His wife desperately needed it.