Cannabis has been produced as a cash crop in the Eastern Cape’s Pondoland villages for decades. It is the livelihood for many households in these villages.
Depending on the yield and on its quality, some farmers can make an estimated income of R40 000 to R60 000 from these crops each year, according to a report in the Sunday Times last year.
Although the use of cannabis remains illegal in South Africa, a ruling by the Western Cape High Court earlier this year allowing the private use of cannabis could point to a relaxation of these laws in the near future.
Some commentators have indicated that lobbying for cannabis decriminalisation may not yield positive results for poor Pondoland villages. In fact, an increased supply may result in the lowering of prices as the illegality of cannabis is believed to keep the prices high.
However, this remains to be seen as the economy has drastically increased in places where cannabis has been legalised.
For instance, in Colorado, a western US state, since the decriminalisation of cannabis, unemployment has been drastically reduced. Before cannabis was legalised, Colorado’s unemployment rate was 7.7%. However, recent statistics show an unemployment rate of only 3.2%.
Additionally, the cannabis industry has generated $1.3-billion (R17.3-billion) in profit and $200-million (R2.7-billion) in tax revenue.
The question of whether to legalise the use of cannabis and its products has been debated around the world for decades. Scientific evidence demonstrates there are significant benefits associated with the medical use of cannabis products.
There are several cannabis-based pharmaceutical drugs which either contain or have similar chemicals to those found in marijuana plants. Although some of these drugs have not yet been accepted in this country, some are already available on European and American markets. For instance, Sativex and Nabilone which are manufactured by GW Pharmaceuticals and Valeant Pharmaceuticals International, respectively, are some of the cannabis-based drugs approved in the UK, US and Denmark.
Nabiximols, a drug made from an extract obtained from the whole cannabis plant, is available in Canada to control pain linked to cancer. The same drug is now undergoing clinical trials in the US.
In South Africa, although cannabis is illegal, a couple of cannabis products have appeared on the market. These include cannabis oil that allegedly help control cancer linked pain.
Due to the beneficial effects of cannabis, the Department of Health will be releasing the guidelines for medical use of marijuana by the end of the year.
A recent report by Medicine Control Council (MCC) indicates that the medical use of cannabis could be beneficial in instances where other treatments have failed. In fact, the MCC has already allowed the importation of unregistered pharmaceutical products containing cannabinoids for medical use.
The Industrial Development Corporation has also called research proposals from researchers and research institutions to investigate the medical use of cannabis.
If the South African government decides to legalise cannabis for medical purposes, local pharmaceutical companies are going to require reliable suppliers.
Interestingly, in accordance to Medicines and Related Substances Act, 1965 (Act 101 of 1965), the MCC has already set guidelines for the cultivation of cannabis and manufacture of cannabis-based pharmaceutical products for both medical and research purposes.
These guidelines set standards for the production of cannabis and also identify the critical production steps to ensure a reliable and reproducible quality of the product.
Notably, in terms of the provisions of Sections 22C (1)(b) of the Medicines Act, cannabis farmers are required to apply to the MCC for a licence. Farmers must also, in terms of Section 22A (9)(a)(i) of the Act, apply to the director-general of health for a permit to produce and supply cannabis.
These regulations are designed to help control the amount of cannabis produced in the local market and to prevent the diversion of cannabis to the illicit market. This is in line with the international commitment to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to which South Africa is a signatory.
Another guideline includes the training of personnel appointed to oversee the growing of cannabis.
Strict policies and strong security measures for the cannabis fields are critical for the MCC and the Department of Health to even consider issuing the necessary licence and permit. Failing to follow the security requirements can also easily lead to the withdrawal of the licence and permit by the authorities.
Clearly, the standards set by the MCC and Department of Health will be hard to achieve by those in the poor Pondoland villages without the support of the government.
I therefore call for the MEC of the Eastern Cape department of rural development and agrarian reform Mlibo Qoboshiyane to ensure that the Pondoland villages are not left behind in developing this important resource.
Such assistant will obviously include training and funding for the establishment of well-secured cannabis facilities.
The Eastern Cape government should set guidelines on how these farmers can be assisted to ensure they make a meaningful contribution to the growing economy.
Considering the current debate on how expensive pharmaceutical drugs are in South Africa, Pondoland’s villages could play an important role in producing and supplying highly affordable but quality raw material and thereby leading to reduction of drug prices.
At the Southern African Trade and Investment Hub, Tinashe Kapuya indicated that “monopolies are not desirables, as they lead to an inefficient price discovery, which in turn leads to companies charging more than prevailing market prices”.
Pondoland has, for decades, been known as the “headquarters” of cannabis production in the Eastern Cape.
And indeed, we have witnessed their cannabis fields being destroyed by police and the use of the Monsanto, weed-killer Roundup.
If the Eastern Cape government is serious about eradicating poverty and bringing radical economic transformation, helping Pondoland villages to obtain licences and permits for controlled cannabis production for medical purposes will be a progressive move.
It will allow the poor communities to participate in the economy and also to be significant stakeholders in the highly lucrative pharmaceutical industry.
Moreover, more jobs will be created and such initiative may indirectly decrease crime.
These are some of the benefits that could be accrued if the Eastern Cape government would play a proactive role regarding cannabis production and the supply of this resource to the pharmaceutical industry.
A month ago the Zimbabwe press reported that the Zimbabwean government is considering decriminalising cannabis to lure investors from Canada who have already applied for permits to produce the herb for medical purposes.
If the Pondoland villages are to out-compete other producers, it is critical that the Eastern Cape government plays a leading role in assisting the farmers.
Asanda Mditshwa is lecturer in horticultural science at the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.