A Budding Revolution

There is a budding revolution among South Africa’s cannabis growers

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There is a budding revolution among South Africa’s cannabis growers and, ironically, it’s led by a man who would have voted himself “most unlikely to lead”, if South African schools had things like alumni yearbooks.
As things stand, South Africa desperately needs revolutionary income opportunities for the 65,3% of youth who do not finish school or the 50% of students who drop out of tertiary programmes.

Their unlikely leader, Krithi Thaver, is one of these drop-outs and—like many other drop-outs before him—now employs several people in a group called Canna Culture. They sell cannabis-infused Ayurvedic oils at Africa’s first cannabis dispensary in Durban North and also train people how to clone and grow better cannabis. Thaver also chairs the KwaZulu-Natal branch of the Cannabis Development Council of South Africa (CDCSA) and has helped to shape the council’s simple but vast vision—to grant licences in 29 sectors to develop a cannabis industry that can employ people in South Africa’s most impoverished rural communities.

”The aim is to grow hemp to make bio-diesel and biodegradable plastics and even sanitary pads, not just to grow plants for smokers or even the medicinal market, although these sectors present huge income opportunities too,” says Thaver.

Asked what the size of South Africa’s black market for cannabis is, he said no one knows for sure, but it’s big, as in ‘billions’ big.

GG Alcock, the Author of Kasinomics: African Informal Economies and the People who Inhabit Them estimates the growers of recreational cannabis in KwaZulu-Natal alone generate over a billion rand annually.

Not legal, yet

Lucky Mhlongo, a sangoma with a respectable following on Facebook and a sizeable patch of “majat” (local strains of medium-strength cannabis) in his backyard—”now that it is sort of legal”—says he would be happy to get a tiny slice of the billions spent on weed in Mzanzi every year.

But Mhlongo is not too hopeful that Parliament will meet the March 2019 deadline the Western Cape High Court has given MPs to amend laws that allow police to kick down doors on suspicion of there being cannabis in the house. For, since the late Parliamentarian, Mario Ambrosini’s impassioned plea in 2014 to fellow MPs to legalise medicinal cannabis in South Africa, legalisation efforts have become mired in red tape.

At the time of print, South Africa’s best-known cannabis activists, Myrtle Clark and Julian Stobbs—the ”Dagga Couple”—have been waiting over seven months for a Constitutional Court judgement that will impact their 2010 case, which essentially took the government to court for enforcing dagga laws that are unconstitutional, irrational and racist.

”It is impossible to second-guess our learned judges in green and all we can hope for is that there is some clarity soon,” Stobbs said in a statement on the Fields of Green for ALL website.

One outcome is for the ConCourt to uphold the Western Cape High Court’s judgement and allow South Africa to use cannabis at home. The worst-case scenario for the Dagga Couple and all users will be if the ConCourt upholds the State’s ban on possessing any part of the indigenous Sativa plant.

Stobbs warn that while people like Mhlongo think the Western Cape High Court’s ruling made cannabis at home legal, it is not and the police still arrest over 600 people a day for possession or dealing.

Room for growth

When it comes to dealing in dagga, Stobbs would like to see no law other than supply and demand governing prices and sales, and he argues cannabis growers should only need to get a tax number.

All the growers currently involved in illegally growing weed agree that the economic and industrial impacts of allowing cannabis to grow freely in South Africa is so big as to be almost incalculable.

These growers range from the House of Hemp’s Dr Thandeka Kunene to Jason Law, founder of the Zubenathi Trust in the Eastern Cape and co-founder of the CDCSA. To date, Kunene is the only person in South Africa to have received a permit to cultivate cannabis for research purposes from South Africa’s Department of Health.

She also received subsidies from various provincial governments to research the plant and last year, drew the ire of prosecuted growers by being allowed to cultivate hectares of cannabis in the Dube TradePort next to King Shaka International Airport.

While she learnt that Dutch designed glass houses may be too hot to grow weed in tropical climes, she still harvested many kilogrammes of cannabis ”for research”.

Law’s vision, which is supported by Thaver, is for rural growers to be free to sell their cannabis on regulated markets, like tobacco, wool and meat farmers do.

”Just think if we grow all our own fuel, or export oils to supply the growing industry of bioplastics, or even just export our organic, southern latitude medicinal weed,” says Thaver, who currently imports such oils from the United States.

Cloud Shadowshot, a cannabis expert from the United States, who has been involved in setting up exports to North American markets from Lesotho, said there is no limit to how high the cannabis market can go. While cannabis is still illegal in Lesotho, the government there reportedly permitted seven farms to grow medicinal grade cannabis for export.

At the time of print, a publicly traded German company was ready to buy 15 tonnes of cannabis a year at US$4 a gram; and a Danish investor was willing to contract growers at US$2 to US$4 a gram.

This demand received two important boosts during June. The first was from retired basketball star, Dennis Rodman, who arrived in Singapore for the historic Trump-Kim summit wearing a T-shirt promoting a PotCoin, which shows investors that cannabis is now big enough to attract its own cryptocurrencies. The second boost came from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which met in Switzerland in June to review the agency’s policies on cannabis.

While most WHO committee meetings are closed to the public, individuals were allowed to present public testimony during an open session on 4 June. As part of the report, the agency surveyed 953 cannabis patients from 31 countries. The ensuing WHO report found cannabis is a “relatively safe drug” that millions of people are already using to help manage a wide range of medical conditions.

This is in direct opposition to the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board, which in March 2018 “strongly cautioned” Uruguay and Jamaica for ”acting in clear violation” of 1961 drug treaties by making cannabis legal based on health and religious reasons.

The smart money is now all set to capitalise on the WHO’s announcement but the laws are slow to change—some say because the even smarter money working for Big Pharma is lobbying hard to get regulators to set Byzantine standards that will effectively keep small growers out of the market.

In Zimbabwe and South Africa, this amounts to relatively high, non-refundable deposits just to apply for a permit, which will only be granted if the grower meets onerous fencing, security and ISO requirements. Mhlongo says quality control for medical marijuana is a very good thing. ”You can’t grow this plant in dirty places like mine dumps or sewage farms. If there are poisons in the ground, it will mop it up, which is why the Russians are even using cannabis to clean the ground around Chernobyl. But I have many testimonies that show if you grow this plant under the sun, on nice, clean chicken dung, with rainwater, it makes good DIY medicine,” Mhlongo says.

No selling online

With the world ready to order over the Internet, it should be easy for Mhongo to sell his organic ”shade for the chickens”, as the Zulu’s refer to their backyard cannabis crops.

But Google’s advertising policy bans the “promotion of substances that alter a person’s mental state for the purpose of recreation or otherwise induce highs” or “products or services marketed as facilitating recreational drug use”. In other words, no cannabis sales.

Getting paid over the web is also a problem, as the biggest payment system, PayPal, strictly prohibits transactions dealing with “certain controlled substances or other products that present a risk to consumer safety, drug paraphernalia, cigarettes, items that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity”.

South Africans are, however, nothing if not resourceful. The country’s most infamous and reportedly most successful medicinal cannabis seller, Sheldon Cramer from Richards Bay, aka Bobby Greenhash, simply uses Facebook pages and electronic fund transfers (EFTs) to sell the harvests he gets from Swaziland. Like Lesotho, Swaziland’s authorities have long turned a blind eye to the tonnes of cannabis exported over their borders since the 1990s.

The cannabis dispensary that Thaver opened amid mini-factories in Durban North is another example of local innovation in the pot trade. Thaver stresses they do not sell any raw bud, but only infused oils.

”We are not trying to fight the government but showing them what can be done. We are tired of talking, cannabis is where the real radical economic transformation for South Africa is happening, and with WHO finally admitting this plant heals, laws will eventually catch up and we can open more dispensaries, perhaps under a franchise system,” Thaver concludes. 

Proposed licenses to develop cannabis farming in South Africa

  • Agriculture/grower
  • Informal farmers
  • Commercial farmers
  • Cultural/religious groups, sangomas and traditional healers
  • Educational institutions and research facilities
  • Cannabis cooperatives
  • Manufacturing and processing
  • Semi-processing industries, hemp biomass suppliers, raw oil producers, biomass producers—industrial and commercial
  • Pharmaceutical industries and medicine manufacturers
  • Consumables manufacturers (non-medicinal/recreational, cosmetics
  • Transporters and storage
  • Industry related training and skills development providers (SETA Accreditation)
  • Biofuel refineries
  • Other—as defined by the minister and apex regulatory bodies—includes retail outlets
  • Retail and consumer suppliers
  • Pharmacy outlets, clinics, treatment centres, medical institutions, medical practitioners (not including traditional healers) and veterinary outlets
  • Dispensaries—non-medicinal products, edibles, recreational extracts
  • On-consumption outlets (“coffee shops”) and recreational user taverns
  • Industrial and commercial product suppliers—hemp textiles, biofuel suppliers, hemp-based and processed non-consumable product suppliers
  • Seed suppliers
  • Hospitality- and tourism-related industries, tour operators, medical tourist providers and treatment centres
  • Edible food products
  • End-user/consumer markets
  • Industrial and commercial applications
  • Medical applications
  • Recreational users
  • Traditional healers
  • Religious and cultural groups
  • Foreign trade customers
  • Textile and Hempcrete industries
  • Biofuels and plastics
  • Clinics and healthcare centres
  • Cannabis tours and hospitality
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