Former Trade Policy Chief Garth Strachan Sets Out His Game Plan to Kickstart the Cannabis Economy; Pledges to Get THC Limits in Hemp Raised as a Priority
Main Objectives of Cannabis Policy: Fight Poverty and Create Jobs
In his first interview since being appointed the President’s Cannabis Advisor, Garth Strachan told Radio 702’s Clement Manyathela on 12 July 22 https://bit.ly/3JzPScV that his main job was to try and pull government agencies into alignment over cannabis policy – the core of which was to fight poverty and create jobs.
But he cautioned that this was a complicated process, fraught with dissenting views and the high risk cannabis reform backfiring. South Africa, he mused, had not performed well in sunrise industries in the past, the energy sector being a prime example.
“It would be lovely to go into government and bang a few heads, but I’m a consultant trying to orchestrate a process across government departments to act with urgency”, he said.
“We don’t want to get involved in “analysis paralysis”; we want to get interim measures in place and get plants in the ground” “Developing a strategy which brings the illicit economy into a regulated economy is the first part of the problem and a balance between big business and small farmers is needed”.
Most Urgent Task is to Amend Existing Legislation
He said his most urgent task was to ensure that amendments to existing legislation would be passed to enable Government’s own vision of cannabis as an economic driver, to get off the ground. He said he would be making proposals in this regard, one of which was raising the acceptable THC limits in hemp, which he said were “ridiculously low”.
“Then we need an evidence base which gives us a better understanding of the global market, the domestic market; across industrial uses, medical, pharmaceutical, wellness and other uses that have been identified in the demand pillars for hemp and cannabis” said Strachan, a former Deputy Director General of Trade and Industry, who took up his consultancy post with the Government in June 2022.
Strachan: THC Limits in Hemp are “Ridiculously Low”
Strachan said one of the urgent amendments that he would push for was the THC limitations in hemp to be raised as they were “ridiculously low”.
“In fact testing has shown that you can’t grow hemp outside in an African climate and get significantly below 1% THC; there are a whole range of regulatory adjustments required and I’m applying my mind to that - and engaging with the various departments to try and ensure we lower the regulatory barriers .
“Another issue is the requirement of a separate export permit for every export consignment of cannabis in order to be compliant with international track and trace rules”.
“We also need zoning regulations – you can’t plant foreign plants next to local landraces otherwise they may cross pollinate” said Strachan who added that comprehensive testing and analysis standards had to be set.
Private Purposes Bill and National Cannabis Master Plan Need to be “In Sync”
He said that along with amendments to existing legislation an intermediate framework was required while more cohesive legislation was drafted. “We need some interim measures, but these have to be carefully calibrated . Whilst there’s a need for haste and urgency, we also need to be really careful that we don’t make policy and regulatory missteps because it’s difficult to claw those misteps back.
“We have to balance the need for big investment in agribusiness with taking care of traditional growers, or there may be unintended consequences on the real issues we need to address which is rural poverty and economic activities” he said.
“My own view, and this is subject to Government agreement, is that we need a single hemp and cannabis law for all purposes rather than trying to do this with disparate different pieces of legislation” he said. “I’m not a legal expert, but in my view the Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill (CPBB) is addressing a constitutional issue which allows for private use”.
“I haven’t seen the final itineration of the Bill but I think there’s a danger of conflating what a private purposes bill should be doing, and what is needed as a regulatory and legislative strategy to commercialize hemp and cannabis.”
Strachan said the Bill and the National Cannabis Master Plan (NCMP) “needed to be in sync”.
Engaging with Justice Department is a Priority
“There are a lot of overlapping issues, and there are some highly contentious issues - like reparation and expunging criminal records; and how do you have some process of reparation for those convicted for minor activities that are no longer illegal?” he asked.
He said sanctions against cannabis users also put a burden on the criminal justice system. “Instead of dealing with these petty crimes, it should be freed up to deal with more serious issues. But if you speak to people in the criminal justice system they have a different view; they have a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards all criminal activity, including the sale of small quantities of cannabis. This is not an easy sector. It’s a very complicated sector; we have to get alignment.”
Strachan said one of his priorities was to engage with the Department of Justice, as there were several problematic legal areas. He complemented the work of Fields of Green for All co-founder Myrtle Clarke who called into the show saying that SAPS was the “elephant in the room”.
She urged Strachan to get the police force out of the cannabis sector, saying they were “the biggest problem to cannabis reform”. Strachan acknowledged that this was an important point and said he would be taking this up with the Department and would engage with Clarke further.
Many SAHPRA License Holders Caught High and Dry
He said that while careful consideration had to be given to a long term commercial framework for the industry, critical thought had to go into an intermediate framework.
“We need careful planning with some interim measures and the measures have to be carefully calibrated. Let me give you an example: SAHPRA has issued 150 licenses for cannabis cultivation, and that may have had very unintended consequences. Without a demand analysis, those companies may find themselves in a situation where they have become stranded; they don’t have a demand for their product; some are exporting their product but there is anecdotal evidence that product has been dumped on the local illicit market with the negative unintended consequence of lowering prices, oversupply and impacting traditional small-scale, indigenous knowledge growers. And as the President said that sector has to be central to our plans for a sustainable cannabis and hemp industry.”
Strachan said he saw his role primarily as one of “orchestration”. “DALRD (the Department of Agriculture) has to be responsible for primary production, DTIC (Trade and Industry) has to be responsible for upstream of the farm gate, all the equipment involved; and downstream from the farm gate, get into processing and manufacturing. It’s complicated with respect to medicinal uses – obviously there has to be a regime of clinical testing and so DoH (Health) has to be involved, SAHPRA has to be involved; the DoJ (Justice) has to be involved because we can’t open a new sector without also taking into account issues of public health and safety.
“Unfortunately cannabis consumption has sometimes been associated with other drugs and criminal activities, so there are also justice and policing issues involved; so it’s a complex mix of the necessity of getting intra-government coherence and alignment unblocking the blockages to investment, and support for black small scale farmers.
Competitive Cannabis Strategy Required
Strachan said South Africa should develop a competitive strategy in relation to cannabis as it was not feasible to dominate all parts of the value chain. He said the private sector was vital in this regard. “One of the things I have to do is talk to the people who are experienced and so learn the lessons, I intend to work closely with private sector, but we need to be very careful that we don’t set up regime that favours deep pockets”.
“The key question will be how we lower the barriers to entry to support small scale farmers and others , and at the same time ensure that issues of public health and wellness need to be addressed”.
“It requires a competitive strategy. SA’s landrace seeds or stock, are competitive capabilities which we can’t lose. At the moment, licensing requires the importation of seed. We should be developing our own seed bank and a method of distributing seeds to farmers, as has been done, for example, in Thailand, and look carefully at how we support black small-scale farmers.
There are a lot of complicated issues around agricultural extension, aggregating demand, product to market and product to manufacturing companies, who are doing processing and value-added manufacturing”.
“I am convinced that there is enormous opportunities not just in the demand for adult use but also medicinal cannabis, wellness products, foodstuff and innumerable application of hemp and cannabis products as an alternative to plastic.
“Bear in mind that the hemp and cannabis is actually the same plant - seeds can be used for oil, flowers can be used for CBD or THC, the leaves can be processed into animal feedstock, the stalks can be used for making composite materials. For instance the C Class Mercedes Benz being assembled in East London has panels made out of hemp and there are companies that are already set up using building materials out of hemp” he said.
“We have to develop a regulatory regime which enables the regulation of the illicit economy. If we have a regulatory regime with high hurdles why would a rural small scale farmer move from the illicit economy into a regulated economy if he has to put up a huge amount of money to get a license, put up a fences, have a track and trace system and so forth”.