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Cannabis Commercialization: Bold Leadership Needed to Break the Cycle of Dysfunction

Cannabis Commercialization: Bold Leadership Needed to Break the Cycle of Dysfunction

The former ANC government has gradually formed a nascent framework for industrial cannabis but the new administration needs to go a lot further to harness the plant’s benefits. This requires tackling the grey area of commercialization, which, to date, no political party has shown any leadership.

Siseko Maposa, Director Surgetower Associates

27 June 2024 at 07:00:00

This opinion piece was first published in The Citizen on 27 June 2024.

Under the ANC government, South Africa’s cannabis policy gradually progressed towards legalisation, with a regulatory framework in place for medical cannabis and a nascent framework for hemp and industrial cannabis.

Shortly before South Africans cast their ballots, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed the Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill into law, thereby legalising the consumption of cannabis by individuals in private spaces.

While this legislative development represented a significant step forward, it notably fell short of permitting the commercial sale of cannabis, leaving the prospects for adult-use cannabis commercialisation in South Africa uncertain.

The industry eagerly awaits bold leadership to drive the legalisation and commercialisation of the adult-use cannabis market, unlocking vital economic opportunities and harnessing the potential for sustainable growth and job creation.

The legalisation and commercialisation of the market is particularly crucial for small rural farming businesses, predominantly black-owned, that remain at the periphery of the market.

These farmers face significant barriers to entry in the hemp and medical cannabis markets due to limited access to investment capital, which often favours large-scale urban operations. As a result, many are forced to engage in illicit activities.

For centuries, these farmers have cultivated cannabis, yet they remain vulnerable to criminalisation.

Therefore, it remains essential that the government commits to breaking this cycle by prioritising the development of a scientific, evidence-based regulatory framework that supports adult-use legalisation and commercialisation and is pillared on inclusivity.

This will create a more equitable industry, addressing historical injustices, promoting economic empowerment and driving sustainable growth.

The visibility of cannabis on the agenda of the government of national unity (GNU) remains uncertain, particularly because many political parties relegated cannabis policies to the periphery during their election campaigns.

Only a few parties saw it fit to include cannabis in their 2024 manifestos – a glaring omission.

A nuanced examination of the policy orientations of the GNU’s top three constituent parties is imperative as, for the time being, their stances will ultimately arbitrate the trajectory and pace of cannabis policy reform in South Africa.

The ANC omitted any mention of cannabis from its election 2024 manifesto. This makes it challenging to discern its willingness to drive commercialisation forward. Despite Ramaphosa’s purported openness to the idea, the ANC has failed to demonstrate the requisite political will to propel cannabis reform at the necessary pace.

The signing into law of the Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill just before the elections can be attributed, in part, to the Constitutional Court’s Prince judgment, which effectively compelled parliament to enact legislation that upheld individuals’ constitutional rights to consume cannabis in private.

Unfortunately, the ANC appears to be internally conflicted regarding cannabis commercialisation.

Notably absent from the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) 2024 manifesto was any mention of cannabis reform. Historically, however, the DA has consistently demonstrated opposition to cannabis legalisation in South Africa.

In 2004, DA health spokesperson Robert Carlisle proposed a commission on inquiry into the distribution and use of cannabis, effectively placing a hold on any idea that the party would support legalisation.

Furthermore, in 2014, the DA opposed the Medical Innovation Bill, which aimed to legalise the distribution of cannabis to cancer patients by health care professionals.

The party’s historical antipathy towards cannabis reform suggests that it will be reluctant to champion it. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) expressed its support for the expansion of the industrial cannabis and hemp industries in its manifesto.

The party recognises the potential of these industries to serve as a catalyst for local economic growth and job creation, thereby contributing to the country’s economic development.

Although the IFP’s manifesto does not explicitly mention recreational cannabis, this endorsement of industrial cannabis and hemp represents a significant step forward in the pursuit of a commercial framework and signals growing recognition of the economic benefits associated with cannabis.

The apparent apathy of the top three GNU parties on cannabis policy reform may likely lead to a lack of haste in commercialising the sector, potentially squandering a lucrative opportunity for economic expansion and revenue generation.

Outside the GNU, parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are likely to push the GNU on cannabis reform.

The EFF made submissions on the Private Purposes Bill, which stressed inclusivity in the industry.

Their manifesto pledges to harness cannabis’ economic potential, supporting black and coloured farmers, promoting competition in the seed supply industry, and advancing research.

• Maposa is the director of Surgetower Associates, a management consultancy. He writes in his personal capacity.


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