David Julian Wightman never expected to become a cannabis activist living in Zambia.
He was born in the African nation to a Zambian father and Canadian mother, but shortly after, David moved to Canada where he grew up. He then became a journalist and moved back to Zambia in 2013 to take care of his ailing father.
It didn’t take long for Wightman to see the incredible injustices that everyday citizens endure in the name of cannabis prohibition. “When I arrived back in Zambia in 2013, I was shocked to see the numbers of people who were being jailed for cannabis offenses, most of them poor peasant farmers and unemployed youth,” Wightman said in an interview with Marijuana.com.
“I began writing about the issue and also the benefits of cannabis. I also started the Facebook page NORML Zambia, directly inspired by the NORML organizations in the United States and worldwide.” Wightman is working to end the “war on cannabis” happening in Zambia, which is all too familiar in many parts of the world today.
“Currently the war on drugs is out of control in Zambia. Almost half of all inmates in Zambia’s prisons are held for cannabis. Over the last 6 or 7 years, the local Drug Enforcement Commission has been on an aggressive and often violent rampage across the country,” he said. Wightman added that personal cannabis cultivation is popular in Zambia, which makes easy-pickings for authorities who mostly target youth and the poor.
A group that has experienced particularly harsh punishment for cannabis is Zambia’s Rastafarian community. “Hundreds of Rastas have been harassed, beaten, and incarcerated, while their places of worship have been burned or otherwise desecrated, their bibles confiscated and drums destroyed,” Wightman said.
David Wightman is fighting for cannabis reform, in part because he’s very aware of the unfortunate numbers surrounding the unfair treatment of marijuana users. “In the last 3 years alone, 17,107 people have been arrested for drug offenses, the vast majority of them for cannabis. Of those, nearly 9,000 have been convicted and sentenced to jail time. The current prison population is a record 21,000,” he said.
Wightman added that prison overcrowding is a terrible problem in Zambia and much of that nightmare has been caused by rampant drug arrests across the country. “Children as young as 10 years old are being incarcerated for cannabis. The [Drug Enforcement Commission] is specifically targeting school grounds and rounding up students in groups. Our sources confirm this,” said Wightman.
Despite the deplorable situation that Zambians caught with marijuana find themselves in, there are members of the government who want to see drug reform. “We know that quite a few politicians and government departments are in favour of legalization. A lot of people are seeing the money that is being generated by legal weed in the United States and this makes them drool here,” he said.
Wightman added that these politicians have even come out and spoken publicly about the importance of marijuana reform. “We have had a number of high-profile opposition politicians speak in favour of cannabis, as well as the head of the Zambian Medical Association, who recently spoke strongly in favour of legalization for medical marijuana.”
Like many governments that have some of its members calling for cannabis to be made legal, the country of Zambia is partially influenced by other countries that have done the same. “Activists and some government types are watching what happens in South Africa and around the world. The legalization wave in the U.S. is a huge inspiration and a source for almost all the positive information we are using in our own campaigns,” said Wightman.
Although the current situation regarding cannabis is dire in Zambia,Wightman couldn’t be more optimistic about the future of pot in the African nation. “Here in Zambia, as in many many other countries, it’s not a question of if legalization will happen, but when. I’d say within the next five years. If the current government doesn’t legalize, then the next one will after the election in 2021,” he said.
Wightman attributes these changing attitudes to the fact that the population of Zambia is made up of mostly young people with open minds about weed. “The population of Zambia is overwhelmingly young with almost 40 percent between 15 and 35. [As well] half the population is under the age of 15,” he said.
For now, however, the struggle continues. “The fight for legalization in countries like Zambia is for basic human rights that are enjoyed in the West. You have the significant advantage of having a properly functioning legal system in Canada. Here, if you can’t afford a lawyer you are essentially condemned to the misery, violence, shame, and disease that exists in Zambia’s prisons,” said Wightman.
We leave the story of Zambia’s accidental activist where it began. With a Zambian-born, Canadian-raised man whose efforts to bring attention to this significant problem are seeing success.
Whether it takes a year or ten, it’s evident that David Julian Wightman is committed to seeing the conclusion of this dark chapter in the history of prohibition. A chapter which will, hopefully soon, pave the way for a more open-minded and accepting view of this wonderful plant.