Now that dagga is no longer a drug …


Now that dagga is no longer a drug …

Buying or selling non-medicinal marijuana can still land you in jail, but now that President Cyril Ramaphosa signed the Cannabis for Private Purposes Act on May 28, it is one step closer to becoming a regular agricultural commodity, writes ALI VAN WYK.


IF YOU listen carefully, now that the electoral uproar has died down, you will hear another low-frequency rumble in the country. These are the voices of thousands of excited people in the marijuana community buzzing about the millions of legal rands that will roll in now that laws and attitudes about marijuana are loosening.

Optimistic to wild estimates and claims are being made about how big the industry could become. President Cyril Ramaphosa calculated in his 2022 State of the Nation (SONA) address that if legal and bureaucratic obstacles were removed, 130,000 jobs could be created and large parts of the rural economy could be saved.

On the day before the general election, Ramaphosa finally signed the Cannabis for Private Purposes Act in order to comply with a Constitutional Court ruling in 2018.  And perhaps to nudge a last few dopeheads in the direction of the ANC. The law has few direct consequences for commercial growers or retailers, but it is an important development because of the new definition of the Cannabis sativa plant — and because the regulation of the plant has shifted from the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act to the Plant Improvement Act. Although it is still illegal to sell marijuana, it prepares the ground to develop the regulation of commercial marijuana.

These seemingly trivial legal changes are major victories for marijuana war veterans.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

The green bus comes from afar

Whether you're for or against the use of marijuana for relaxation or healing, you can't deny its prominence in our culture. No other plant in our region has so many different names. Dagga, cannabis, zol, boom, giggle grass, parrot salad, chicken foot, ape tobacco, electric spinach, ganja, rondkyk rothmans, berg parsley, park grass, greenfeed, smackleaf, zaab, dwaalbos and so on. And that's only the names derived from the Afrikaans ones.

In what would become South Africa, marijuana has been controlled in places since the late 19th century, but the general ban only came under an amendment to customs law in 1922. Despite that, the marijuana industry has only grown in the 100 years since.

The former minister of public welfare and pensions, Connie Mulder, an arch-conservative if ever there was one, would spin in his grave if he saw  how much marijuana is produced and smoked in South Africa these days. In 1971, Mulder got the Abuse of Dependence-producing Substances and Rehabilitation Centres Act on the statute book and solemnly promised to finally eradicate marijuana in South Africa. The possession of just one dagga zol carried a mandatory prison sentence of two years.

However, this intention went up in a colossal white mushroom cloud of fragrant smoke in the decades that followed, to the amusement of thousands of hippies, rastas, white conscripts, miners, farmworkers and gardeners. The weed-smoking community will never need racial quotas.

Statistics on marijuana production and exports are, of course, a problem in an industry that has operated under the shadow of the law for a century, but there are indicators.

There has been an industry for ages

With the help of the ideal climate for growing marijuana in regions such as the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, large-scale rural unemployment, and farming techniques passed down between generations, South Africa has become quite competitive in the field of black market marijuana.

The Institute for Economic Justice estimates that about 900,000 small farmers are involved in illegal marijuana cultivation. Some reckon South Africa is the world's fourth largest marijuana producer, an achievement that can be proudly placed next to our four rugby world cups. Government projections predicted that the industry could be worth about R28 billion this year.

Among the more amusing aspects of the industry are the “brands" that have emerged over the years, usually linked to the region of production. Ask the dealer what you're buying, and if he says it's Pondo you'll vaguely know what you're getting. Strong and old types, such as Durban Poison, are to be found in the coffee shops of Amsterdam. Swazi Redbeard kicks like a mule, and Malawi Gold and Cob need steady hands, a bit like LSD.

This black market industry is primitive because it involves almost no processing. But like any large smuggling industry, it has developed complex supply chains and transport models. There's a danger that the entire black market could be displaced by formal corporate players, and not just because the men in suits are the bad guys. It's also because future legitimate traders in major developed countries are likely to prefer consistent quality from well-organised and legitimate suppliers over unpredictable quality from ex-smugglers.

We need predictable regulation

We spoke to the chief economist of Agbiz, Wandile Sihlobo, and a cannabis grower with many years of experience, Natie Ferreira, about the future, and they agree on several things. Both say the industry in South Africa is large and turbulent, difficult to control and in an awkward position for stable growth because the regulatory framework is changing, unclear and unpredictable. The most important fact that has plunged the industry into uncertainty is that it is still not legal for an ordinary dealer to sell marijuana to Tom, Dick and Ganja Harry.

Agbiz's chief economist, Wandile Sihlobo, writes regularly about the regulatory environment of "ganja," as he calls it.
Agbiz's chief economist, Wandile Sihlobo, writes regularly about the regulatory environment of "ganja," as he calls it.

The more you find out about the industry, the more you realise that  politicians, journalists and economists who make big projections about the potential of South Africa's “green gold" have little experience of the realities and barriers to establishing a formal industry.

Over the past seven years we have only progressed from a large black market to a growing grey market alongside it. After the 2018 Constitutional Court ruling, which decriminalised the personal use and possession of marijuana, a crowd of informal players tried to exploit its loopholes — especially farms and growing clubs. The police were just as insecure as the rest, and in most cases let God's water run over God's land.

The ruling also changed the status of marijuana so it could be included in a list of “unregistered medicines that can be prescribed by a doctor" under section 21 of the Medicines and Related Substances Act. This has led to a horde of so-called dispensaries that have sprung up in cities, all of which are probably illegal.

What loopholes the new shops and even stalls in shopping centres try to slip through no one knows, because some of the vapes and oils they sell lead to more than mild relaxation.

The only part of the industry that operates in a white market involves about 70 producers with medical licences from the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra). They export products to legitimate overseas customers. The rest sit in a swampy, evolving regulatory environment and are on a spectrum between almost legal and fully criminal.

Sihlobo says the big statutory and attitudinal changes in the past seven years have not meant much for traditional growers in places like Mpondoland. The Sahpra licence costs about R25,000 for the application, then annually, which is unaffordable for these farmers. In addition, the licences come with several strict production regulations which are beyond their capabilities.

The market for medical cannabis is also largely abroad. Sihlobo says that even if these small farmers could legally sell their products domestically,  there are no value chains they can join from the rural Eastern Cape. Should these value chains eventually develop, they will be in the metropolitan areas, which means rural growers will be excluded from progress in cannabis farming.

Sihlobo reckons there should also be early discussions about the regulation of commercial seed production and which plant lines will be developed and for what purpose.

In the aftermath of Ramaphosa's 2022 SONA, in which he made much of how his government would put its shoulder to the wheel to remove regulatory hurdles, Sihlobo posted an article on his blog outlining what must happen to develop the industry.

He says we need a “transparent and predictable regulatory environment; an open investment regime; strong research and development support; knowledge networks linking university researchers, centres of excellence and other industry players; we need a product quality and standards body and low-cost licensing system”. He also believes that marijuana farmers need a production organisation.

Apart from the signing of the private use law, there has not been much other development from the state's side since Ramaphosa's SONA.

The marijuana professor speaks

Natie Ferreira looks like you would expect a cannabis grower to look. Wiry, tanned, with long, sun-bleached hair somewhere between untamed and dreadlocks. And a lush beard, of course.

However, when he gets talking, something he likes to do, you realise he's not just another stoner bro with no motivation and a short-term memory. If South Africa creates a first cannabis chair at one of the universities' agricultural departments, they can simply let Natie know in advance to come and sign up.

Natie Ferreira is an expert and grower of cannabis.
Natie Ferreira is an expert and grower of cannabis.

He is a walking encyclopaedia on all aspects of the industry, especially plant cultivation and genetics. He also knows the legal developments well, he understands the rural growers' business, he has strong opinions about economic aspects of marijuana and he is one of the country's leading production experts of the plant's  less adventurous half-brother, hemp.

He mostly keeps himself busy with his Paarl cannabis nursery, Dagga Farmacy, where he grows and sells the cannabis plant. But he has irons in many fires. He also does production training, he has the country's first analytical cannabis laboratory, he's involved in a grow club, he works with the government on projects like Operation Phakisa, he's one of the colourful dagga activists you see on the television news in front of the high court, and he finished the Cape Epic on his bicycle. In short, Natie is an impressive marijuana dude.

He says the signing of the new law has important implications: “The definition of the cannabis plant has been changed. It is now only cannabis when it flowers — only the flowers are cannabis. The rest of the plant — branches, leaves, roots, seeds — is not cannabis. This interpretation now opens it up for businesses like mine to legally sell seeds, seedlings and cuttings.

“There are now new directives coming out about how our industry is handled. It now falls under the Plant Improvement Act. There is a hemp certification scheme that is being changed to the cannabis sativa certification scheme, which can now be published and gazetted because cannabis sativa has been removed from the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act.

“A lot of things have to happen now, including the publication of the hemp seed certification scheme under which our industry will be regulated. I'm fine with that, we're excited about it, we can now at least improve the grower support side of it, and the supply chain. It's just, when someone grows that flower, he can't sell it, under no circumstances. There is no model to sell it that is legal.

“Also very beneficial for many people is that the law as it stands now refers to regulations that have not yet been made. There are no longer regulations about the number of plants that are legal or illegal in your possession. There is no mention of four or eight plants, or something like 80 g that you may transport or 1.2 kg per year or any of that.

“We're in a bit of a vacuum at the moment when it comes to that, so people can take chances with it now, but even the private growers club model is based on an interpretation of the private-use Constitutional Court ruling. I think we will soon see how this stuff plays out in the courts and we will also get an idea of ​​how it will be further regulated. Everything that has been discussed in the past few years can now start to happen, because a major blockage was the fact that cannabis fell under the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act."

If you ask Natie if it will be possible to support the thousands of small marijuana farmers in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal through co-operatives with marketing and extension services, he says it is all very difficult before it is legal: “I think you have to allow a lot of that stuff to happen organically, as we've seen now in the grey market with the clubs and the section 21 facility. The impact it already has on the market and the impact it has on tourism must be taken into account.

“There are also romantic ideas about what is going on in the traditional growing areas. People assume these farmers grow landrace marijuana, they've been growing it for 100 years and they feel proud of it and they think they're the custodians of it. It is not like that at all. These farmers are suffering, and they will grow any other crop they can grow. They don't even want to grow marijuana. The value is very low and the methods that most follow give a low quality. Your ordinary landrace farmer is actually out of the market.

“However, what is happening organically is that some farmers closer to the coast have started to learn to grow only female plants from cuttings and grow a higher quality cannabis that has no seeds in it. It has had a dramatic impact in those areas in the last five to seven years and it is slowly spreading inland. These are the kind of growers you would focus on with any enhancement or support model."

In seed farming, most of the money and control lies in the seed industry, and Natie says there is a fear that large seed companies will dominate the industry, but there are also good developments: “Some of the large seed companies are already busy with it. Starke Ayres brought in a variety that is being tested at the Agricultural Research Council but there is great interest from the government in helping local seed growers. I have two of my own varieties that I'm still sceptical about, but when the ARC opened up the conversation for people to bring seed I brought it, and they're testing it around the country. They would like to support local seeds and see investment in them, so the government sees the opportunity to export seeds in particular."

It is a dynamic, complex and chaotic industry, and also a unique case study in transformation from a massive black market to a white market. We are following this with great interest, and will continue to report on it.


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