Analysis

Govt Gets Rolling On Cannabis Policy

A ministerial advisory committee is being established to provide the Cabinet with guidance on cannabis policy. Eyes may roll at the thought of another ‘committee’ but it at least shows government is serious about crafting a cannabis policy that helps stimulate economic activity and growth.

It has been almost a year since Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo declared that Sections 4(b) and 5(b) of the Drugs Act, and Section 22A(9)(a)(i) of the Medicines Act, were unconstitutional and invalid because they prohibited adults from privately using or cultivating cannabis. Parliament has another year to bring cannabis legislation up to constitutional scratch.

So it is high time government got things rolling and the first tentative step has been the decision to form a ministerial advisory committee on the issue, the National Department of Health has confirmed to Business Maverick. Such committees can provoke a lot of understandable groans from South Africans who just want the government to get on with obvious policy reforms. But it is a complex issue and one government wants to get right, so why not seek expert advice for the crafting of policy?

Minutes from a recent meeting of public and private stakeholders on the matter give some insight into the direction this may take. Issues being explored include: the regulatory framework for the treatment of patients; religious uses; legislation in other countries, presumably including Canada, which has gone the legalisation route; the industrial potential of hemp; and assurances that legal cannabis cultivation does not compromise food security.

The economic benefits, value additions and job creation potential are also high on the radar, with feasibility studies expected to be commissioned, and BEE requirements will probably be established for the issuing of licences. Only five commercial licences have been approved to date, mostly for foreign companies.

One hopes the government will move with haste on this issue. As we have argued in these pages before, this is low-hanging fruit that can easily be plucked. In April, Canada’s statistics agency reported that the number of people employed in the country’s cannabis sector had risen four-fold from the previous year to 9,200. Most of those were involved in cultivation, harvesting and processing. Given South Africa’s relatively low labour costs, one could expect tens of thousands of jobs to be easily created in such areas, and quickly.

There is political will on this front. A source familiar with the matter told Business Maverick President Cyril Ramaphosa has taken a keen interest in the issue.

But buy-in from some groups, such as commercial farmers, who have the capital, land and farming know-how, might take time. White commercial farmers are generally a culturally conservative lot.

I recently asked a large-scale commercial grain farmer for his thoughts on the potential to transform some maize land to cannabis cultivation, which per hectare can be far more profitable.

I might as well have asked him for his thoughts on Satanism, or his views on cultivating opium to support the Taliban. He was flabbergasted and it was clear the thought had never crossed his mind. Some people still view cannabis users through the prism of Reefer Madness, a hysterically funny 1936 US propaganda film warning of the supposed dangers of smoking pot.

But a growing number of South African stakeholders see the economic potential of cannabis along with the welcome change in social policy that the elimination of prohibition will herald. Let’s hope the committee gets down to work quickly and offers salient advice. 

OPINION: Ed Stoddard