The draft South African Cannabis Masterplan states that there are up to 900,000 traditional dagga growers in South Africa and that they and ‘dagga’ need to be included in the cannabis value chain, but Agriculture (DALRRD), which is the Masterplan’s lead department, makes absolutely no recommendation as to how this is to be achieved.
In the Country Investment Strategy (CIS) released mid-2022 by the Presidency for public comment, cannabis, alongside green hydrogen, is one of five big frontiers of government-identified strategic foreign direct investment opportunities designed to meet the ambitions of the National Development Plan (NDP).
On 29 November 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa opened the green hydrogen summit where the government promoted green hydrogen as a key just-transition project with strong ministerial and interdepartmental support, along with dedicated coordination, personnel and financial resources.
Green hydrogen is hydrogen manufactured with renewable technologies. There is currently no green hydrogen manufactured in South Africa, but it has been identified to support a just transition to a climate-resilient and sustainable South African society. An estimated 1.3 million jobs could be created by 2050, helping to transform our existing grey hydrogen manufacturing capacity into green hydrogen through a significant increase in renewable energy availability.
In contrast, cannabis in South Africa, a natural green industrial economy commodity with massive job-creation opportunities, remains a grassroots struggle with little or no funding or political support beyond rhetoric and policy statements that never seem to translate into action.
Despite our country’s competitive advantage of sunlight hours, land, soil, water, and tens of thousands of heritage cannabis farmers growing drought-tolerant landrace genetics that could potentially form the backbone of cannabis industrialisation for the country in the hands of small-scale farmers – and the rural poor – there is no national cannabis coordination or budget allocated to develop the industry.
The Country Investment Strategy (CIS) proposes “State enablement of Big Frontier 4: Industrial Cannabis and other advanced agro-processing” by convening to process the recommendations of the Cannabis Industrialisation Master Plan through Cabinet via the interministerial committee on cannabis commercialisation.
Except the master plan is flawed due to being produced without an evidence-based approach towards developing a country-competitive strategy. Additionally, the interministerial committee on cannabis has not met for at least the past six months, probably longer.
The CIS also sets out to promote co-investment to mobilise cannabis production for export as part of the Special Economic Zones network, as well as to catalyse by gearing relevant land-release, land-reform and mining land reclamation programmes to identify land parcels that would not be suitable for most cash-crops (due to water table and/or soil quality issues) but which could be viable for cannabis plantations. Yet no funds are available for research and development to establish the viability of this claim or to develop suitable genetics based on our local cannabis seed.
The goal for state enablement on cannabis industrial policy is to finalise a common cannabis regulatory framework geared towards industrialisation for export, with a focus on the medicinal value chain, with a proviso that this will most likely require the deployment of regulatory sandboxes to test these approaches in specific provinces and regions.
This enablement through empowering legislative processes is probably the biggest stumbling block to unlocking this potential sunrise industry combined with the continual focus on cannabis for export, which completely misses the opportunities for cannabis-based product substitution to develop the significant potential of the local market and industrialisation of our rural areas.
The existing and proposed cannabis legislation in South Africa is reactionary and piecemeal, and often has unintended consequences with questionable constitutionality.
A well-regulated cannabis industry is critical to the development of this new sunrise sector. Structured, simple-to-implement legislation has enormous potential to stimulate economic growth, create jobs and contribute to a just transition to meet our climate and Sustainable Development Goal targets. The thoughtful design, implementation and continued appraisal and, when necessary, revision of regulations, are keys to the success of any cannabis industry.
The purpose of strategic South African cannabis legislation should focus on mechanisms to unlock our competitive advantage in the tens of thousands of existing growers, hectares under cultivation and climate- and drought-tolerant naturalised genetics. The central tenet revolves around choosing either a social development approach or a criminal approach to cannabis legislation.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government is working around the theme of “leave no one behind” and in his 2022 State of the Nation Address said that “we will review the policy and regulatory framework for industrial hemp and cannabis to realise the huge potential for investment and job creation. The hemp and cannabis sector has the potential to create more than 130,000 new jobs. We are therefore streamlining the regulatory processes so that the hemp and cannabis sector can thrive like it is in other countries such as Lesotho. Our people in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere are ready to farm with this age-old commodity and bring it to market in new and innovative forms.”
This was reiterated in his closing address to the ANC Eastern Cape’s ninth provincial congress on 9 May 2022 where he stated that “we must ensure that cannabis commercialisation does not disadvantage small and subsistence growers of cannabis, and the government will put in place mechanisms to support and protect small and subsistence growers”.
Traditional growers excluded
The Draft South African Cannabis Master Plan states that there are up to 900,000 traditional dagga growers in South Africa and that they and “dagga” need to be included in the cannabis value chain, but makes no recommendation as to how this is to be achieved.
The current trajectory of industrial and medical cannabis is exclusionary of traditional growers and our indigenous cannabis. These growers will continue to produce and sell recreational cannabis on the illegal market where they are able.
There is no provision for a reasonable trade in cannabis for those who want to use cannabis as per the September 2018 Constitutional Court ruling granting rights for people to use cannabis in private despite serious constitutional considerations as to how people without access to land and private space can cultivate cannabis or how they may get the seed to grow it. The existing medical cannabis regulations have high barriers to entry for traditional growers and the development of a local medical cannabis market.
Despite these stated policy intentions, the pace of cannabis legislation reform in South Africa remains painfully slow and the existing laws allow only for the cultivation of medical cannabis for export under a SAHPRA licence and the cultivation of cannabis with THC less than 0.02% for industrial purposes through a hemp permit issued by the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development.
The proposed Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill is the government’s response after four years (and two years past the deadline) to the Constitutional Court ruling that allowed for cannabis cultivation and use in private. The bill continues to regulate cannabis via the criminal justice system with limits to quantities, alluding to provisions for cultural and religious use and trade with no specifics and no accommodation of traditional growers.
The country’s cannabis legislation must enable existing growers to enter and participate in the value chain serving as a pro-poor mechanism to regenerate the rural economy, maximise our competitive advantage of farmers and climate-resilient and drought-tolerant genetics, formalise the massive existing illicit market and negate the necessity for further court challenges on the constitutionality of the legal framework.
Perhaps the regulatory sandbox suggested in the CIS can allow for pilot projects of community-based landrace cannabis farmers to test and innovate with their existing cannabis genetics under supervision. This will allow the necessary research and development to understand what we have and its potential applications for industrialisation and rural development.
A significant body of work unpacking, integrating and outlining a framework for a single cannabis bill has already been conducted by Webber Wentzel attorneys in a report developed for the Eastern Cape Rural Development Agency and managed by a steering committee of local and international cannabis legal experts, titled “The Conceptualisation, Motivation and Key Provisions for an Enabling Regulatory Framework for Cannabis in South Africa”, which unpacks options on the form of the regulation and institutional structures to manage cannabis.
This report highlights the underlying policy and conceptual considerations needed to facilitate science- and evidence-based cannabis regulation and policy to: drive the rapid industrialisation of the potential high-value cannabis value chain in South Africa; protect and improve public health through cannabis medicines; prevent any potential harms; achieve a balance between commercial interests and public health regulations; protect the health and well-being of the young and vulnerable; reduce drug-related crime; promote broad-scale public education and awareness around cannabis use; and to ensure the protection of human rights, inclusivity and to address past injustices.
To develop a world-leading cannabis industry our government urgently needs to fund the development of the sector and to improve coordination among stakeholders through a powerful management structure that includes civil society representation, with a clear mandate and agreed timeframes to deliver a cannabis plan for South Africa that is African in nature, and adheres to our international treaty obligations in an innovative, pioneering development model to build this new inclusive cannabis industry.
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.