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High time: House passes new strict narcotics law after court setback

Parliament has passed the Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Bill, 2023 which now allows the licenced farming and use of marijuana strictly for medical use, and sets harsh penalties for a multitude of offences related to substances abuse.

The 94-clauses Bill was passed on Tuesday, 22 August 2023 following three grueling sittings in which MPs had lengthy deliberations on its provisions.

If assented to by the President, Clause 1 gives the Bill an immediate enforceability, in what the Chairperson of the Committee on Defence and Internal Affairs, Hon. Wilson Kajwengye, said was the urgency to plug loopholes in the regulation of narcotics and psychotropic substances.

Following the annulment of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Control Act, 2016 by the Constitutional Court, Parliament went back to the drawing board.

Government reintroduced the Bill on 23 May 2023, two weeks after the Constitutional Court nullified the Act on grounds that at the time of its passing Parliament lacked the required quorum.

The new law seeks to allow the cultivation of marijuana and khat strictly for medical and other authorised use, with extreme penalties included like forfeiture of properties and lengthy jail terms and hefty fines for violators.

Speaking to the strict licencing regime, Hon. Kajwengye, also Nyabushozi County MP, said Uganda will join nations intolerant to drug and psychotropic substances abuse.

“The committee posits that all licences and permits to be issued under this Act should centrally be issued by the Ministry responsible for Health since the permission to use narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances is restricted to only medical purposes; the Ministry of Internal Affairs should remain the enforcement arm of the Government,” he said.

Khat, too, will be a controlled substance only cultivated with licence and consumed on medical prescription, should the President grace the Bill with his assent.  

“Under a highly controlled legal regime, the international obligations notwithstanding, the two plants (cannabis and Khat should only be allowed for cultivation and usage strictly for medical purposes and research,” said Hon. Kajwengye.

A last ditch effort to save khat from the list of banned substances by MP Asha Kabanda Nalule (NUP, District Woman Representative, Butambala) failed, when Deputy Speaker Thomas Tayebwa put her proposal to the vote, and MPs voted against it.

Unmoved, MP Timothy Batuwa (FDC, Jinja South Division West) reignited the fight to declassify khat from the list of prohibited substances, arguing that the plant, popular with cross-border truck drivers, should be permitted for conformity with East African Community member countries.

“When we were legislating the Local Content Bill, it was returned and the President [Yoweri Museveni] asked us to have an East African Community mindset when legislating; there are people who consume khat and they live with us as refugees, as business community and they consume this product,” he said.

Hon. Batuwa compared khat to tobacco, and asked to have it completely legalised.

With this position, he earned the wrath of MP Laura Kanushu (NRM, PWD National), who said she is not eager to have her constituency [of Persons living with Disabilities] expanded.

The Attorney General, Hon. Kiryowa Kiwanuka, also agreed.

“Two per cent of the people in Butabika are there for using khat-like stimuli; it would be very sad for us to come back here and say the number has increased to 10 per cent [as a result of this Act],” he said.

Clause 10 of the Bill, if it becomes law, goes big in the protection of children, with life imprisonment awaiting anyone who intoxicates them with drugs and psychotropic substances.

“A medical practitioner, pharmacist, dentist or any other person who supplies or administers a narcotic drug or psychotropic substance to a child where the narcotic drug or psychotropic substance is not required in treatment of a child, commits an offense and is liable, on conviction, to a fine not exceeding fifty thousand currency points or to imprisonment for life or both,” reads Clause 10.

Farmers involved in the cultivation of the prohibited substances will now have to obtain licences from the health ministry, and those who fail to do so will suffer jail, according to the content of clause 11.

Repeated offenders will now suffer jail.

To cure malicious searches and arrests by persons authorised by the Bill, clause 18 puts personal liability on authorised persons who conduct arrests or searches without reasonable cause.

Under clause 7, a pharmacist who prescribes any of the prohibited drugs and substances under the Act will suffer a Shs1 billion fine, 10 years in jail or both.

Under clause 8, medical professionals who, in contravention of their duties under this Act, prescribe and supply the prohibited substances will have their names removed from the registry of professionals.

Efforts by Hon. Kabanda Nalule to have the Police and army personnel also laced into that particular provision failed, with MPs rejecting her proposed amendments.

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