Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic substances Bill suffers legal setback ahead of House debate

Parliament recently failed to debate and potentially pass the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Bill, 2023 after Speaker Anita Among raised legal issues concerning the way the Committee on Defense and Internal Affairs had tempered with the principles of the legislation.

Currently, Parliament is trading with caution while processing the Bill because its reintroduction by Government on May 23, 2023 followed the nullification of the 2017 Act by the Constitutional Court on grounds of lacking quorum at time of its passing by the 9th Parliament.

Speaker Among, informed Parliament that the Committee chaired by Nyabushozi County legislator Wilson Kajwengye had changed the principles of the Bill by introducing amendments on most of the clauses which is a violation of Rule 61 (4) of the Rules of Procedure of the 11th Parliament.  This Rule provides that; an amendment shall not be permitted if, in the opinion of the Speaker, it substantially alters the principle of the question proposed.

“These amendments have an effect on the principles of this Bill. I am referring this Bill back to the committee and it should be harmonized with the Attorney General and report back to this House. I want to advise the leadership of the Committees, when you are given a Bill don’t go and change the principles of the Bill. This is not the Bill we referred to the Committee.” Ruled the Speaker.

After some of the legislators raised concerns over not involving the Committee on Health in the processing of the Bill and yet most of the provisions touch on the health of Ugandans, the Speaker also allowed the reconsideration to be done jointly by the two committees.

Kajwengye, the Committee Chairperson confirmed to the House that he had been guided by Attorney General, Kiryowa Kiwanuka on the changes that the Committee had introduced in the Bill while writing the report. He said the Committee will soon sit to reconsider the Bill.

Inside the report

After the Constitutional Court on May 4 ruled in favour of Wakiso Miraa Growers and Dealers Association hence nullifying the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 2017 the government on May 23 reintroduced the Bill which carried more less the same provisions as the annulled law. Some thought the work would be easy for the Committee to process and report back to Parliament so that it passed with the required quorum.

However, the Committee was stunned by Internal Affairs Minister, Maj Gen (Rtd) Kahinda Otafiire two weeks ago when he said that the government had made some reconsideration on the need to regulate the cultivation of Catha edulis (Khat) locally known as Miraa or Mairungi, arguing that it is high value crop that can contribute to economic growth when the products are exported for medical purposes. The Minister also proposed that in deleting Miraa from the Bill, some parts of the Cannabis locally known as Marijuana or bangi should be deleted from substances to be prohibited if the law is passed.

“I would want to remove Khat and [the] part of Cannabis from the Bill. They have become cash crops. World over, Cannabis has now become a plant from which we get medicinal substances and it is now a multibillion-dollar business” said Otafiire told the Committee early July.

The Minister added that such plants are being grown as cash crops and have brought a lot of money for countries like Kenya, Canada, Ethiopia and some European Countries.  He allayed fears that the legalization of the growth of Mira and Cannabis would lead to social disorder as a result of abuse arguing that the government will implement control measures after the enactment of the law.

“Even this notion that societies will be destroyed by Cannabis is actually wrong. I am told the best Cannabis is grown wildly in West Nile. In fact, some of the best brains in this country come from [the] West Nile and if Cannabis were dangerous, then we would have wasted people in West Nile” the Minister argued.

In the report that the Committee had prepared, the legislators had ignored the new government position on the legalization of cultivation of Miraa and some parts of Marijuana arguing that there is need for the country to go slow on them because they have been abused in the most recent times.

The Committee relied on the presentation of the Butabika hospital officials who said that, more recently, the research and studies conducted at the facility have shown that cannabis has increasingly become a gateway drug for the use of other hazardous substances. The committee also argues that there are no controlled studies or clinical trials that have declared Miraa medicinal.

“Drawing from the above, the uncontrolled consumption and distribution of cannabis, Khat and other synthetic drugs continues to pose a significant public health risk to the young populace” reads part of the report.

The report adds that: “as such, the Committee deems it necessary to ensure public health by prohibiting cannabis sativa and Catha edulis (Khat). Under a highly controlled legal regime, the international obligations notwithstanding, the two plants should only be allowed for cultivation and usage strictly for medical purposes and research”

Questioned amendments

The Committee in its report which was not presented on the floor of Parliament, proposed amendments to 66 clauses out of the 105 clauses that are included in the government Bill. To the Speaker, this was a violation of the Rules of Procedure and Parliament would not be able to process a Bill whose principles have been tempered within such a significant magnitude.

Some of the amendments proposed by the Committee touch the offenses and punishments that had been proposed by the government in the Bill. A case in point is the proposed amendment to the offense and penalty for a person who could be convicted for being in possession of narcotic drugs. The bill proposes a fine of 500 currency points (Shs10m) or three times the market value of the said drugs, whichever is higher, or imprisonment not less than 2 years but not exceeding 10 years, have been set in the new Bill but the committee in its amendments want the penalty to be 50000 currency points (Shs1b) or three times the market value of the drug, whichever is greater or imprisonment not exceeding 20 years or both.

While the government proposed a fine of Shs10m or three times the market value or life imprisonment for anyone convicted for trafficking narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances; the Committee amended it to a fine of Shs1b and maintained the other proposals.

Some government proposals

Smoking, inhaling, sniffing, chewing, or any form of using a narcotic drug or psychotropic substance attracts a penalty of not less than Shs480,000 and not exceeding Shs2.4m or a custodial sentence of not less than 1 year but not exceeding 5 years while possession has an Shs3m fine or imprisonment not less than 3 years but not exceeding 5 years upon conviction.

The same penalty has been retained for a person who; owns or occupies or manages premises or permits premises to be used for abuse or manufacturing; has a pipe or utensils used for illicit use; and, who recruits or proposes the use of these drugs.

As was with the annulled law, the above penalties will not apply to a medical worker, dentist, veterinary surgeon, or registered pharmacist who is found in possession of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances if he or she has a license issued by the National Drug Authority.

If found guilty of trafficking narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, you will be charged a Shs10m fine or three times the market value or life imprisonment.

A punishment not less than Shs2.4m fine or imprisonment of not less than 1 year and not exceeding 5 years has been proposed for a person who knowingly or has reason to believe that he/she is handling a parcel, package, container, or any other thing that contains narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances.

A medical practitioner or veterinary surgeon who uses narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances for treatment except where it is required for a patient is liable to a Shs24m fine or a custodial sentence not exceeding five years.

To avoid more abuse of these drugs on medical grounds, the Government has emphasized the need to deregister from the national register of professional bodies any medical practitioner, veterinary surgeon, dentist, or pharmacist who would be convicted of improper prescription of these drugs.

With reports of increased drug abuse among minors, Government wants to curb the vice by putting in place a deterrent penalty of not less than Shs2.4m or imprisonment of not exceeding 5 years for a person convicted of supplying toxic chemical inhalants to young persons while cultivation of certain prohibited plants would attract a fine of Shs2.4m or 5 years imprisonment, and for a second or repeat offender, imprisonment for life.

The Government also proposes the establishment of a rehabilitation centre and a fund to help deal with victims of abuse of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances in the country.  While the rehabilitation centres are operated across the country, there would also be a National Coordination Committee for Drug Control with the functions of; defining, promoting, and coordinating the policy of the Government for the control of drug abuse and trafficking.

If the law is passed, the Attorney General of Uganda will have the mandate to request an appropriate authority in another country to arrange for evidence taking in case of investigations under this law.

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