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Cannabis in Africa: South Africa, Zimbabwe and Lesotho Leading the Way

The African continent, we are often told, has great resources and economic potential, but is held back by lack of development and infrastructure. It’s certainly a sign of the times that we’re now hearing this line not only from the oil and mineral cartels, but the cannabis industry.

This familiar refrain is the central contention of The African Cannabis Report, newly released by UK-based international cannabis industry consultancy Prohibition Partners. As we’ve previously noted, the think-tank’s name is an ironic one; the company is dedicated to monitoring and encouraging the growth of the cannabis sector as it ascends in the emerging post-prohibition world.

Daragh Anglim writes in the introduction that Africa, blessed with favorable climatic conditions, is already estimated to produce at least 38,000 metric tons of cannabis per year, almost all of it for the illicit market. Marijuana remains illegal in most African countries, but economic factors are nonetheless propelling the illicit sector: “High unemployment rates and a global decline in demand for tobacco crops has hit these economies hard,” he observes. “However, the region has a wealth of experience in cannabis cultivation; despite its illegality, many agricultural workers have turned to cannabis farming as the only way to earn enough money to provide for the basic needs of their families.”

Anglim weighs the prospects for transition to a legal cannabis sector: “With affordable land, low-cost labor and an experienced agricultural workforce, Africa offers enormous opportunity to local start-ups and foreign companies looking to expand.” But this is followed by caveats about lack of development. For instance, an “inadequate healthcare system means that even if medicinal cannabis were to be legalized across the continent, access to products could be significantly thwarted without the support of the NGOs, charities and other donors…”

Indigenous Traditions, Harsh Prohibitions

The report notes that cannabis is deeply rooted in the African continent, with widespread use in folk medicine since it was introduced from South Asia in the 1500s. Africa remains a central hub for cannabis trafficking, with Ghana, Nigeria and Eswatini (until recently known as Swaziland) the most notable transfer points. South Africa is identified as a key market, but most of the cannabis produced on the continent is for export. In Morocco, illicit cannabis is a $10 billion industry that employs 800,000 people.

Yet since the 1920s, cannabis has been harshly prohibited across the continent. In some countries, including Nigeria and Kenya, penalties have been getting more draconian since the 1980s. It’s only very recently that cracks have emerged in the continent’s prohibitionist edifice.

DARAGH ANGLIM: “With affordable land, low-cost labor and an experienced agricultural workforce, Africa offers enormous opportunity to local start-ups and foreign companies looking to expand.” 

The small and landlocked mountain kingdom of Lesotho is the first African nation to begin legal cultivation, and the country has been seeing an influx of foreign investment since taking this move last year. In Eswatini, also a small landlocked kingdom in the continent’s south, the Swazi House Assembly in 2017 appointed a committee to explore cannabis legalization.

The report openly states that poverty could be the driving force of legalization, much as it propels the illicit sector: “A decline in demand for key cash crops, such as tobacco, is pushing the region’s governments to look for alternative income streams. Given that cannabis is grown illegally in large quantities across the African continent, full legislation and regulation could unlock the income potential for many African countries, particularly the leading tobacco growers, Zimbabwe and Malawi.”

Yet, once again, “infrastructure and facilities are lacking,” so “implementing new production centers may prove costly and time-consuming.”

Dagga Party Protest in South Africa (Photo courtesy of Dagga Magazine)

The Three “Tiers” of Liberalization

The report sees three tiers among African countries on their degree of cannabis liberalization.

In Tier 1 are countries “leading the way”—countries that “show signs of moving forward with significant changes to the laws and policies on medical and/or recreational cannabis.” This tier includes Lesotho, its giant neighbor South Africa, which also embraced a partial legalization last year, and Zimbabwe, which legalized medical marijuana in 2018 . The South African Health Products Authority is overseeing limited cultivation and a Dagga Party has emerged to press for a more far-reaching legalization. The Durban-based craft beer company Poison City Brewing has launched South Africa’s first cannabis beer (although with no actual THC).

Tier 2 countries are “poised to move”—those “likely to embark on liberalization within the short term.” Countries with “active campaigns to change the legal status of cannabis” include Malawi, Morocco, Ghana and Eswatini. There have been several petitions to Kenya’s parliament demanding legalization. Meanwhile, hundreds of hectares of cannabis in the Mount Kenya districts of Embu and Meru are bulldozed or set on fire annually. In Egypt, lawmakers are weighing a decriminalization measure.

Tier 3 countries are those “not yet ready for change.” This presumably covers the remainder of the continent, though Zambia is mentioned as one country that’s displayed a glimmer of progress. In 2017, the Home Office actually did declare medical cannabis legal there, but the Health Ministry has openly stated that no licenses for use or cultivation would be issued.

Another traditionally intolerant country where dissent to prohibition has only very recently started to emerge is Nigeria. This West African nation’s most prominent campaigner for legalization is Omoyele Sowore, presidential candidate for the African Action Congress and publisher of online news outlet Sahara Reporters.

The Curious Case of South Africa

The report’s historical background on South Africa may be more revealing than the authors intended. The indigenous Khoisan and Bantu peoples used cannabis before European settlers arrived on the Cape in 1652. Then, the Dutch East India Company tried to establish a cannabis monopoly, prohibiting cultivation by Cape settlers in 1680. Failure to eradicate indigenous cultivation, however, undercut profits, and the prohibition was lifted in 1700. Prohibition returned in 1891, when the British Cape Colony outlawed cannabis, followed in 1903 by the Orange Free State, one of the two principal Boer Republics. But in the other main Boer Republic, Transvaal, cannabis was cultivated and sold freely, as it was in the Natal Republic.

This only began to change after British annexation of the Boer Republics, followed by South African independence in the early years of the 20th century. The 1920s saw a “moral panic” around use of cannabis, resulting in its total criminalization in 1928.

Is there a sense of deja vu as the pendulum begins to swing back toward tolerance nearly a century later? Nathan Emery, founder and CEO of Zimbabwe-based Precision Cannabis Therapeutics, is quoted on the impending corporate scramble for South Africa and its neighbors: “The major cannabis companies like Canopy Growth are lobbying the [ruling] African National Congress (ANC) tightly. Supreme Cannabis has already partnered with the main monopoly player in Lesotho, MediGrow Lesotho, which is highly politically connected, and Canopy has secured a license without a production plan as well; all to gain a foothold into the South African market.”

Although the report doesn’t spell it out explicitly, this may point to the return to a kind of cannabis mercantilism, with big foreign companies reaping the profits of the new sector. The report does note the need for “corporate social responsibility,” such as “providing much-needed infrastructure.” But this is a very different thing from local control, and if the record set by previous foreign industrial interests in Africa is any judge, only enough infrastructure investment will be made to assure continued profits.

The Africa Cannabis report is available free of charge here.

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