Almost alone in a sea of naysayers (globally) right now, South Africa appears to be moving forwards, no holds barred, in creating a regulatory scheme for the burgeoning local cannabis industry. While this has been in the cards since 2019, it has just gotten a turbo boost—and from the president of the country itself.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his State of the Nation address on Thursday February 10, that the cannabis industry is on track to create 130,000 jobs domestically. As a result, creating a regulatory and policy framework for the functioning of the industry itself is now a priority.
“We want to harness this,” he said. “We are going to fast-track policy and regulations for the use of cannabis for medical use, especially in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.”
The new focus on reform is an interesting turn of events here that many have predicted would pick up speed as the world emerges from COVID. The Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill has been making its way through Parliament since its introduction in September 2020 but it has been repeatedly stalled. Until now, that is.
The legislation specifies specific rules and guidelines for both cannabis users and those who wish to cultivate the plant.
The draft bill states that adults may possess and cultivate cannabis in a private place as well as consume prescribed cannabis.
As Ramaphosa explained, he and his government are looking for ways to help promising new industries with high growth potential and find a good business climate in the country.
“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.”
The move is long in coming, but it is clearly a shot in the arm for the burgeoning industry in South Africa. As of 2018, the country’s constitutional court ruled that private citizens could not be prevented from consuming and cultivating cannabis at home. The decision also gave lawmakers two years to pass legislation—a timetable that has clearly been blown.
As in Mexico, the combination of legislative foot dragging, and COVID has now pushed this move out another two years. That delay appears to have just come to an end.
A Big Step Forward or a Confusing Mess?
So far, the legislation has been broadly criticized for its confusing rules and strict penalties. Even though the bill expunges minor offences, it does not specify a groundwork for commercialization (which has largely stalled the industry so far) and does not clarify what law enforcement may or may not do. For example, people who smoke in public can be imprisoned for two years. If people smoke in front of children, they face four years in prison.
Advocates have also criticized the legislation because it only benefits those who have space to grow and consume cannabis in private. Steep penalties put the pressure on the poor and vulnerable communities who do not have this luxury. Developments like cannabis clubs have also existed on tenuous ground.
In response to the criticism, the South African Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) came up with a “cannabis master plan” last summer to create momentum behind the passage of the legislation. Their additions also create incentives for farmers and to create not just an export only, but local market. However, despite the enthusiasm, the bill has stalled since last September.
It is clear that Ramaphosa is not just reacting to global cannabis reform, but rather internal pressure that includes the dire need to create support for an ailing economy and to quell social unrest in the country, including the regions now targeted for cannabis reform. Indeed, the President appeared at the State of the Union address wearing clothes and shoes manufactured in the country.
“We are engaged in a battle for the soul of the country, and we will not be defeated,” he said.
Rather ironically, given the country’s long and troubled history, for the first time, anywhere in the world, cannabis reform seems to be a big part of bringing peace if not prosperity to South Africa.
Cannabis Reform in Africa
The entire enchilada has moved steadily forward over the last several years throughout the entire southern African region. Lesotho became the first country in Africa to export to Europe last year. In the meantime, other countries, such as Uganda (exporting to both Israel and now Germany) as well as Zimbabwe have moved forward on attracting investors and enabling cultivation and export of both the plant and products made from the same. Further north Morocco is also moving forward too.
For African nations, the export of this plant represents a high dollar commodity crop that promises to bring in much-needed foreign exchange to a part of the world struggling with economic development generally, beyond the Pandemic induced crisis.
Yet in South Africa, there is clearly also strong support growing for a domestic industry, beyond just high dollar exports.
Politically, in other words, pot may have just become a handy political go-to for a leader facing both economic and social unrest. And where South Africa treads, the rest of the world may, finally, be willing to follow.
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