The Political Economics of Cannabis

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The cannabis boom is inevitably coming. Across the world regulations, and laws are changing to allow cannabis to enter the mainstream economy. Unfortunately, new rules and regulations are likely to reinforce colonial patterns and likely exclude rural African communities. In this article, Anaz Mia explores the political economics of cannabis.

THE historical global prohibition of cannabis resulted from early colonisers inability to monopolise the cannabis industry in the same way they could alcohol and tobacco. And if they could not make money, they made sure nobody would.

In Southern Africa, colonists and settlers tried to prohibit and regulate the use and trade of cannabis. Attempts to monopolise cannabis, however, were less successful than that for alcohol and tobacco. Cannabis cultivation represented empowerment and wealth for persons other than white people, and it would not be allowed to happen at all costs. What was to follow was a century of legislative brutalisation, which arguably shared the same ideological foundations of later apartheid laws.

The greatest travesty is that this interrupted an already established, centuries-old regional trade. This characterisation of the African cannabis trade was racist and reductionist and forever change the economics of cannabis.

But times have changed. By 2025, the global cannabis market will be worth $145 billion (R2 trillion). Given our ideal climate, the fact that one-third of cannabis seized globally reportedly has South African origins, and the bulk of this emanates from indigenous communities, you would be tempted to believe that finally, the cultivators of Pondoland and KZN will receive their just reward.

This may not be the case. The neo-colonisers have just found increasingly sophisticated methods of establishing and maintaining their monopolies, using technology and complicated international law. For example, it is not well known that the new Basotho growers after two years of legal cultivation had traded a mere 850 grams of cannabis internationally. This circumstance arose because of the International Narcotic Control Board (INCB) quotas. This body, empowered by the UN, sits in Switzerland and issues trade quotas for a list of dependency-producing substances. An INCB document speaks of a total quota of 91.9 tons of legal production at the global level. As of January 2019, the quota issued to Africa collectively does not exceed 3kg. African governments and cultivators will have to lobby to have this increased. But it is not going to be easy.

Even when quotas are allocated, cultivators must adhere to strict guidelines, focusing on soil, fertiliser, irrigation, herbicides, pesticides and security. The regulatory hurdles are expensive and amount to gate-keeping within the industry. The licensing conditions will likely exclude community growers, and favour ventures by European and North American cultivators. The victims of prohibition will continue to be marginalised despite the legalisation of the plant. At the very least, it will devalue their product on the black market.

This scenario can be avoided. If the government implements a licensing regime that pairs capital and technical partners whose responsibility it will be to sufficiently capacitate communities to produce a product saleable on the international market. 

Unless measures are adopted to give cannabis back to our communities, modern regulations will reinforce colonial patterns of capital accumulation, and rural African communities will be excluded from the cannabis boom.

“The Political Economics of Cannabis” was written by Anaz Mia. He is a lawyer, entrepreneur and activist who cultivates cannabis legally in the Kingdom of Lesotho.

This article first appeared in the Star Early Edition on 12 May 2019. 

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