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Nairobi’s ‘ganja babies’: In Kenya, a puff a day keeps the doctor away

From downtown Kingston to Nairobi’s Eastlands, reggae musicians are unrivalled in their push for legalisation of cannabis. In Jamaica, where reggae music is associated with Rastafarian faith, cannabis, or ganja, is considered sacred and is often referred to as the wisdom weed or holy herb. For decades, top reggae artists have promoted ganja’s medicinal value in their lyrics. In his 1976 title track, Legalise It, the late Peter Tosh said: “We ought to legalise marijuana, yeah… Right here in Jamaica, dem say it cures glaucoma, I man a de bush doctor… Only cure for asthma, I man a de minister (of the herb)…”

‘International herb’

Almost half-a-century later, millions of people around the world are still pushing for legalisation of cannabis, largely due to its healing properties. “Give your children marijuana. Just stop listening to them and pass some smoke to your newborn baby. This is the best advice I have ever received,” says *Sara Majani, 26, a staunch defender of the ‘international herb’. A mother of two, Sara is among a growing community of young women who introduce their children to marijuana as a way of preventing and treating certain illnesses, and to ward off evil spirits.

Where others may shun her advice and would never let her touch their children with a bargepole, Sara only stopped giving her first-born son the herb when he was three years old, now 11. Now, she administers it regularly to her youngest child, who will be turning two this April. Our first encounter with Sara, who sells cosmetics and jewellery in Nairobi’s Eastlands, was by chance. A colleague had visited a friend in an apartment in Nyayo Estate, where she lives.

Sara had an altercation with the caretaker of the block over the holy herb. “I’m sorry, I can’t ignore this anymore,” he told her. It was the second time that the caretaker, a Mr Mwangi, had spied the marijuana smoke coming from her flat. “You need to either call someone to come and pick up that stash (bhang) or I will ask the police to deal with it,” Mwangi warned.

Sara freaked out. “I can’t tell my mum about this. She’ll kill me. Could you tell the police?” she posed, before returning to her smoke-filled house with her children as the caretaker sauntered away, perhaps to call the police. Eight months later, we are in Sara’s apartment. Not for pot, just a chat. Her 10-month old baby clambers to my lap as we settle on a sofa inside the one-bedroom flat that she shares with her sister, husband and her two children.

Medical benefits of bhang

She lights a joint and passes another to one of her friends, who has joined us. The conversation is not about whether or not Sara is addicted to the ‘holy herb’. It isn’t about why she smokes in the presence of an infant. No. It’s about something else. An unconventional treatment and prevention method that, though unproven, shows that marijuana has certain medical benefits to newborn babies.

As the white smoke continues to thicken around the room, Sara hoists her youngest son to her lap. She then blows puffs of marijuana smoke into his nostrils. We fear for the worst. We are concerned that the baby may choke to death, in our presence. My head is spinning, but when I am about to ask her to stop, she loosens the grip around the baby and puts the joint back in her mouth for another drag. The baby falls back onto the couch, choking, genuinely at first but rather playfully afterwards. “Why do you do that?” I ask.

“First-born ‘ndio nilimpulizia sana’. This one hasn’t had as much smoke as the first one because I’ve been quite busy. I used to do this regularly for the first-born. It made him active, increased his appetite and made him sleep easily. You won’t believe this, but my first-born son could walk by the time he was eight months old! He never cried at night like other infants. Everybody loved him; it was easy to leave him with a babysitter when I needed to go to the market,” Sara offers. Sara is a smartly dressed, voluptuous woman who cuts the figure of a person who has risen from the ashes and is trying to establish herself as a productive member of the society. She is struggling to get her jewellery business back on track after she closed it in 2020 following the birth of her son, *Marley. Her makeup and jewelry are what the current generation would refer to as “on fleek”. No, she is not a drug addict and neither is she a pauper.

‘Healing powers’

“I have never seen any negative effects of marijuana since I started using it on my children. Marley is 10 months old, while the first-born is 11 years,” she offers. So, how did she learn about ganja’s healing ‘powers’? The conscious reggae lyrics, or peers?

“I learnt about it by chance. I had my first child when I was 16, so I used to leave him with my mother most of the time. But whenever my mother needed to leave the house, she would leave my baby with my elder brother, who used to spend time with his friends at the shopping centre. That is where the baby was first exposed to secondhand marijuana smoke,” says Sara.

Research into marijuana use is ongoing, but it has proven to be a complex issue with many facets, especially regarding its potential impacts on pregnancy and newborns. Studies of the effects and possible pitfalls of cannabis are available, but the findings are so conflicting that it is impossible to ascertain its safety for children.

But these contradictions haven’t stopped patients from accessing the drug at their own risk. And not young mothers either. According to a report published in January 2019 by Chelsea Burke on the Harvard University website, three large-scale longitudinal studies tracked how maternal cannabis use affected their child’s development.

The Ottawa Prenatal Prospective Study surveyed 700 pregnant women who used marijuana in 1978 and has followed about 200 of those children into adulthood. The US-based Maternal Health Practices and Child Development Study has studied 580 children of marijuana users from pregnancy through age 14.

All these studies showed that children of marijuana users were more impulsive and hyperactive, and exhibited behavioral issues, lower IQ scores, and memory problems when compared to children of non-users. These mental health problems persisted through their teenage years, where they were significantly more likely to have attention problems and depression.

Marijuana-exposed children were also almost twice as likely to display delinquent behavior, such as drug use, by the age of 14 and were more than twice as likely to regularly use marijuana and tobacco as adults. But this view runs counter to more recent advice published in journal Pediatrics, which found no problems with use of the drug in pregnancy, while breastfeeding.

An American scientist, Dr Melanie Dreher, is perhaps one of the most prominent researchers who has published findings that show that marijuana use among children and infants is, in fact, good. Dr Dreher, 53, who has studied marijuana use for the last three decades, is the Dean of the University of Iowa’s College of Nursing, and also holds the post of Associate Director for the University’s Department of Nursing and Patient Services.

The Jamaican-American researcher, who spent almost a decade in Jamaica studying how people there used cannabis, makes no claim that cannabis is good for babies, nor does she encourage pregnant women to use it. Though the cannabis-exposed babies scored higher on some measures in her study, it didn’t show that cannabis caused these better scores.

In fact, the mothers who used the most cannabis also had more education, more financial independence, and fewer other children to care for, which likely allowed them to provide a more nourishing environment for their newborns. She says that while it is reassuring that their cannabis use didn’t seem to compromise infant development, it is also possible that subtle effects of cannabis were masked by these advantages.

Dr Dreher has stated several times in public, and including in podcasts like Drug Truth Network and The Medical Pot Guide, that her study findings were being fought by the National Institute on Drug Abuse who allegedly cut off her funding when her results didn’t show problems with cannabis use. “That speaks volumes,” says Dr Wambora Mwangi, a practicing gynecologist and obstetrician. She says the local medical community has not done adequate research on marijuana and its effects.

“Those mothers who expose their babies to marijuana smoke are not discussing it with their obstetric providers or midwives or obstetricians because they know how they will be judged. Yet they are acting based on facts they get anecdotally from friends, relatives and the internet because we have failed to put the facts on the table. Do we even have the facts?” he says. To find out just how prevalent marijuana use by parents on their newborn babies is, we ask Sara to link us up with her supplier. The peddler, *Jemo, lives in South B Estate, Nairobi. Sara convinces him we are “good people out to promote the holy herb”.

“Have a seat please,” he offers as he ushers us into a room full of young men smoking weed. “We want people who can highlight the good things about the herb, not just the bad stuff. Women come here with babies. I call them ganja babies, because their mothers always get them high. I have never seen any side effects. Just wait here. You will soon meet them.”

True to his word, a few minutes later, three young women enter the room with two toddlers in tow. The joint that was making a round across the room gets to one of them, who picks it, then blows marijuana smoke into one of the children’s faces. We take that as our cue.

“How often do you do this?” I pose.

“All the time when I am smoking,” another woman says, lighting a fresh spliff. She hasn’t had any marijuana yet, but her eyes are already bloodshot. As she takes one drag after the other, her pupils transform into slits.

Jemo encourages them to speak freely in a bid “to debunk fake news about the herb”. “I hear it cures measles and if you want the baby to sleep, bhang is the best piriton?” Laughter. A joint that was making a circle across the room gets to a colleague. He takes it and urges the women to tell us more. “That’s what I know. I’m not sure about improving one’s appetite. Maybe it was hard for me to notice but what I am sure about is that it makes babies active and sleep well,” one of the women volunteers. “And funny!” her friend shouts from another corner, before collapsing into her chair in a fit of laughter. She’s in her own world. Almost everyone in the room is high. The conversation gets more interesting.

“I am always around bhang smokers, so it was almost a given that my baby would be exposed to the smoke. We just found it being done. This thing wards off evil spirits. Rastafarians in Jamaica consider the plant holy. They take it as they pray. It is natural, not man-made. So how is it a bad thing? Who controls nature?” the youngest girl in the room poses. Then she continues: “The only negative effects I have witnessed ‘ni kurukaruka tu, kukuwa’ hyper and doing funny things that make everyone in the room laugh. I am yet to see any negative effect of the smoke. As you can see, she is healthy, now at 10 months. She is my first born.”

Next, we move to Mukuru Kwa Njenga slums for a session with a family that believes in ganja’s healing properties. They are all in dreadlocks, including the children. “We are not Rastafarians,” the eldest member of the family, *Maggy, kicks off the meeting. She is the first-born and lives with her two sons, two younger sisters and younger brother. Their mother died in December 2020.

“I mostly used to do it in Mombasa because that is where they believe there are evil spirits hovering about everywhere. Sometimes I administer it to my son by steaming. I’ve been doing it since he was a month old. “To prepare the concoction, you boil the herbs, then pour the water in a basin for steam inhalation. It helps with measles. Whether or not you take the baby for vaccination, there is a chance that he or she will develop measles. But when you give him this, his immunity is strengthened. I have never immunised my son and he has never had any major illness,” says Maggy.

“I was introduced to it by a lady I met in Mombasa. One day, my son was ill and I didn’t have the cash to take him to hospital. He was just a year old and had symptoms of measles; spots on his skin, a fever and his eyes were red. Marijuana smoke worked wonders as the symptoms disappeared immediately. That night, his fever went down, he slept soundly and woke up full of energy.

“The steam inhalation boosts the appetite and immunity. I advise all women to try it. My son was never fussy; always had a good time with babysitters,” she offers. “Right now I can’t give it to him. He will tell his father and that could give him grounds to take him away from me. I can’t try. But my brother’s son is here. He can give you a demonstration.” His brother calls his son to the living room, then gives us an elaborate demonstration. The women say their use of marijuana isn’t based on any scientific research, but on anecdotal evidence from friends and family.

While the effects of other drugs have been studied extensively, the effects of marijuana – especially on babies – are not widely publicised. This relative silence from the scientific community has affected the public’s opinion on the safety of marijuana, as more young people think there is “slight or no risk of harm” to the baby from using marijuana.

Children sometimes start using marijuana even before they are born, as it passes from their mother’s bloodstreams through the placenta and into their bodies. Many expectant mothers get tempted to use marijuana rather than prescription drugs during pregnancy to relieve pain because they feel “natural” or home remedies are a safer option than prescription drugs. Their argument is that if something is “natural”, it is any safer or a better alternative to well-studied prescription drugs.

*Abby, another mother of a ‘marijuana baby’, attributes her son’s good health to the sacred herb. “I used to do it when the baby was three months old. First of all, I like smoking it, so I don’t know why the government keeps saying it is a bad thing. It is only that some people misuse it, but it isn’t a bad thing. It should be legalised.

“It’s a holy herb. I started exposing him to the herb as a way of preventing some of the diseases common with newborns and infants, such as measles. I have spent very little money on medical bills since he was born and I believe the weed really helped him.” – nation.co.ke