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Opinionista

Cannabis farming is a future reality, but government continues to erect mystifying barriers to entry

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Nicholas Heinamann is an African cannabis activist, policy strategist, and consultant. He is the coordinator of the SA Cannabis Lobby group, a partnership of the Cannabis Industry Development Council, WC, and Afristar Foundation. Afristar is a South African PBO that develops projects and strategies promoting Regenerative Futures focused on a nature-based economy. He has been lobbying cannabis as the People’s Plant since 1996 and the role it can play to alleviate poverty and deal with the environmental, energy, food, water and climate crisis the world is facing.

A reasonable trade in dagga is a future reality for South Africa, and it stands to reason that this should be fast-tracked to legitimise an illicit industry and allow the fiscus to benefit through tax generation. It will legitimise the livelihoods of the estimated 900,000 small-scale cannabis farmers.

The new hemp regulations recently announced by Minister of Land Reform and Rural Development Thoko Didiza are her department’s attempt to harvest the perceived low-hanging fruit of industrial cannabis. And yet they serve only to create additional elitist barriers to entry and entrench the colonisation of cannabis by the Global North.

One might ask for the motivation for such a radical statement, but we should rather address the national government’s hesitation to effect meaningful change and effective legislation to unlock the cannabis industry. One also must wonder about the quality of legal opinion being offered to the state on cannabis reform and regulatory frameworks. The government tends to lose every people-centred case brought before it and then after endless appeals and forcing the Constitutional Court to make common-sense judgments that any reasonable developmental approach task team would arrive at through meaningful consultation and detailed socioeconomic feasibility studies.

Despite ongoing arrests, prosecutions, imprisonment and aerial spraying of their crops, South African small-scale farmers have been farming dagga for hundreds of years with genetics that are now naturalised, drought resistant and can be planted throughout the year.

With varying degrees of success, these farmers sell their recreational cannabis into illegal markets for anything between R300 and R25,000 per kilogram depending on strain, quality and demand. In its simplest form this negates any pontification or debate about developing a cannabis market, since a thriving illegal market already exists. The Garreth Prince Constitutional Court cannabis privacy ruling has already laid the groundwork for a legal recreational cannabis market and it’s just a question of time before the government comes to its senses and allows a reasonable trade in cannabis or is forced to that position by further litigation in the resumption of the “Stobbs/Clarke – Trial of the Plant” in the Gauteng High Court.

If we can assume that a reasonable trade in dagga is a future reality for South Africa, then it stands to reason that this should be fast-tracked without delay as it will legitimise an illicit industry and allow the fiscus to substantially benefit through tax revenue generation. It will also legitimise the livelihoods of the estimated 900,000 small-scale farmers mentioned as the potential beneficiaries in the government’s draft “Cannabis Master Plan”. As the government is scrambling to create jobs this is an absolute no-brainer! What else offers the opportunity to create at least tens of thousands of jobs in the short to medium term with minimum costs and government interventions?

This then opens the door to the potential for the same landrace cannabis that is currently deemed too high in THC for industrial purposes to be used as the cornerstone of the country’s industrial cannabis strategy.

But NO! The Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development’s low-hanging fruit solution is to import low-THC cannabis cultivars from Europe and North America with the additional onerous condition that these seeds cannot be bred out in South Africa, tying us into the global seed supply market until we can develop our own capacity to produce low-THC industrial hemp seed. It also doesn’t consider whether we can grow low-THC cannabis plants at the internationally most stringent 0.2% THC levels with our sunlight hours and latitude.

It’s really a comedy of errors that only serves to entrench the cannabis community’s view that the government and its agencies don’t know what they are doing.

In any sustainable or regenerative rural development model the starting point is to work with what you have and develop systems to add value to the natural systems that in turn offer opportunities to support livelihoods and culture.

So the department’s model, which farmers wanting to participate in the industrial hemp space will have to follow for this growing season, stipulates they will need to pay a licence fee to get a permit, fence their land for a non-narcotic crop, report their activities to and get permission from the police, and report on their production to the Department of Agriculture.

To compound the situation there are no low-THC industrial cannabis seeds currently available in the country so these will need to be imported from the northern hemisphere, with additional seed import certificates and ridiculous phytosanitary conditions that have European seed suppliers scratching their heads.

We have some idea of how some of these cultivar varieties will perform from the previous trials in the Eastern Cape, but there is no established agro-processing support and the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority has taken cannabidiol (CBD) out of the equation, which is a potential high-return option in the short term. Nothing like throttling and overregulating the industry before it even begins, but at least we won’t be flouting or flying close to the wind of any International Narcotics Control Board regulations, unlike cannabis industry leaders Canada, Uruguay, Mexico, the US, Switzerland and Germany, who have already or are moving ahead to legalise recreational cannabis.

For a country with spiralling unemployment and joblessness among the young that pose a direct threat to national security, it’s a travesty that our democratic government can continue to perpetuate thinking and policies from the dark days of the apartheid regime. Where is the justice? What will it take for the people’s voices to be heard and for meaningful, proactive cannabis reform to create opportunities for the rural poor? It amounts to nothing less than gross human rights violations by denying people access to their natural wealth and right to meaningful work and opportunities.

We already have the genetics we need to start an industry; the government’s position should be to provide the necessary enabling legislation, access to production support, agro-processing and stimulate demand for cannabis commodity items that can immediately start to meet the need for food, clothing and housing.

The real low-hanging fruit is the potential for a regenerative rural development strategy driven by indigenous landrace cannabis and existing small-scale farmers that unlocks natural capital, contributes massively to climate change mitigation and kick-starts the lumbering Sassa grant-supported rural economy into scalable industrial production. DM

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