Africa as a continent faces so many challenges as a whole, with each country having its own set of unique problems and complexities, not just from an economic point of view, but also a humanitarian one. It can be said we need to look at history closer to understand our current reality and Africa in essence, was a source of free labour through the slavery system, as well as provide cheap natural resources to the developed world over hundreds of years. We can transpose Cannabis onto that same paradigm, where Africa is envisioned to provide low cost per gram Cannabis for the global supply chain, using our cheap labour and natural resources.

“Cannabis is the messenger, not the message” and I originally heard this profound statement from Paul-Michael Keichel at Schindlers Attoneys. In other words Cannabis prohibition and subsequent legalisation actually highlights issues beyond our Cannabis industry. It highlights how broken our continent is, from Cape to Cairo, governments, foreign corporations, local entrepreneurs and the mythical Cannabis “consultants” working together to perpetuate this toxic cycle.

We speak about Africa in our Full Spectrum Manifesto for Policy Reform and whilst we are in the process of updating content for our imminent final release, here is what I wrote last year:

In 2017, Lesotho became the first African nation to issue licenses permitting the cultivation of Cannabis for medicinal and research purposes, followed by Zimbabwe early in 2018 and Uganda in April 2019. Cannabis remains illegal for the citizens of all three countries and this means that Basotho, Zimbabwean and Ugandan people are not allowed to use, possess or cultivate Cannabis, nor are they allowed to access Cannabis products for their own benefits, whether industrial, traditional / religious, medicinal or adult use.

Despite the granting of these medical and research cultivation licenses in these countries, we remain sceptical as to the benefits to the local population. For instance: Lesotho citizens continue to be arrested on the street and in their homes whilst large quantities of Cannabis cross the border every day into South Africa60. In Zimbabwe, unlicensed growing or possession could carry a 12 year prison sentence.

So what has changed since I wrote that for the manifesto?  Unfortunately not much besides the fact a few more countries have “legalised” Cannabis under a medicinal framework, such as Rwanda, Malawi and Zambia. I’ll be weary with using the word legalisation from here on. To use an analogy, it’s as if all the countries were in a classroom writing a “How to Legalise Cannabis” test, the teacher stepped out to have a smoke break and they all copied the answers from the same student. Except that student actually didn’t attend any classes, didn’t study and also only found out about the test the night before. There are no 10 out of 10 marks with a golden star for writing that test, everyone failed.

The commonality across Africa lies in focusing on medical Cannabis as a first point of entry for legalisation, with anything else i.e.  Recreational Cannabis, punishable with overly harsh prison sentences. Assuming the disconnected thinking is that, by introducing high cost licenses and keeping the plants behind security fences, the population is kept safe from this “mind altering addictive” plant. The final product, whether it is dried, extracted or isolated into different compounds, is then shipped out of Africa into the hands of consumers across the world. With some accounting wizardry to minimise the tax liability, those profits will most likely not come back into Africa, or if they do, its cents on the dollar of what it should be.  Slavery in another form veiled as the globalised Cannabis industry.

One of the worrying trends is that medical Cannabis is categorised as hemp in most of these African countries because of industry focusing on isolating one single compound called Cannabidiol (CBD), with marketers convincing the average consumer that CBD is safer than THC. For agriculture to be profitable at scale for commoditised crops, thousands of hectares of CBD rich (low THC) hemp is needed, especially if you’re competing against low cost CBD producers in China and Eastern Europe. From a cultural and protecting traditional knowledge perspective, the hemp pollen released into the air will decimate any landrace cultivars that the same local communities have been farming for generations. Pondoland in the Eastern Cape in South Africa is a perfect example of these issues on the horizon if hemp farming is prioritised over land race cultivars. In essence if hemp and Cannabis are treated as separate plants, with laws and police to enforce them, it means Cannabis consumers, who choose to use THC products, face the same penalties as if prohibition was in full swing.

Most importantly is the farm worker across Africa, who actually gets the shortest straw in the Cannabis equation, being paid possibly below legal minimum wage as well as other labour violations that foregin companies would not even dare trying in their own countries of origin i.e. Canada.

South Africa can create a Cannabis industry that the rest of Africa can emulate and adapt to their context. We should be the student everyone copied from in that test analogy, except we studied, attended all the classes and prepared months ahead. Fields of Green for ALL is setting the example of what this industry should look like and all of that can be found in our Full Spectrum Manifesto for Policy Reform. Feel free to copy us.

This article originally appeared on fieldsofgreenforall.co.za and was published with permission.

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