I hope that this letter finds you, and that when it does, it finds you well. For me, as an aspiring hemp and Cannabis farmapreneur in South Africa, things are not so well, in case you were asking. Our cupboards and stomachs are empty. No longer can we feed our families on false hope and empty promises. Yet we soldier on, believing in our hearts in the benefit that this plant can bring to humanity.
I am not going to sing the praises of Cannabis in this letter, you surely know about the medicinal, recreational, industrial, and regenerative potential of our beloved plant. You also now – three times – referred to it in SONAs. And once again, our hunger pains are stilled by real hope. It is, after all, you – our president – speaking. Someone we as a nation grew very fond of, as you – the Patriarch of our people – guided us through the wilderness of COVID-19. We so want to believe you this time, but recent experience makes this very hard to do. I will also not dive into the rich, varied and often bloodied history of Cannabis in South Africa. My colleagues over at Fields of Green for ALL can do a much better job of this. I am going to highlight some of my own experiences in the last few years of (the long road to) legalisation.
When the guidelines to produce Pharmaceutical Cannabis were published in November 2017, we eagerly devoured the documents, only to soon realise that it was a copy-and-paste job out of (mostly) Canadian guidelines. A Western model that was hastily jammed into an African milieu where it is destined to fail. Yet investors jumped onto it and demonstrated the expensive mess these archaic guidelines were bound to create. Those guidelines have yet to be updated.
Yet to be updated, even after the industry was hit with another surprise in September 2018, when the Constitutional Court confirmed the right to grow and consume Cannabis in a private place. We still remember our elation when news of the ruling started to spread across the nation. “Surely this ruling will pave the way for a legal Cannabis industry”- we all thought. Big was our disillusionment when we heard that government is going to appeal the ruling, using our own tax money against us. This appeal was later dismissed and government given 2 years to comply with the ruling. Are you aware that your entire cabinet is now in contempt of court? The Medicines act tried to comply by some complicated and ridiculous cannabinoid scheduling, but at least removed the plant in its entirety from the act. All the justice department could come up with was a proposed bill, that once again criminalises what we thought was our constitutional right, for instance healing our children with homemade Cannabis medicine.
This left open the vacuum for various interpretations of the Constitutional Court ruling to hit the South African market. Many of my colleagues have chosen the route of providing access to Cannabis through legal interpretations of a combined version of the proposed Cannabis bill and the Constitutional Court ruling. They operate their versions of this with the knowledge that mere semantics could mean the difference between their next appointment being with their private banker or their defence attorney. A court case supposed to clarify this matter is not being brought before the courts with the can being kicked down a seemingly never-ending road. My colleagues in the therapeutic side of Cannabis were once again forced into hiding, healing the nation underground. The proposed new bill could lock them away in prison for 15 years with their children disappearing into our crumbling welfare system. While the stores soon filled with a confusing range of seemingly legal CBD products claiming a range of health benefits that can, scientifically, only be ascribed to whole-plant Cannabis medicine. These products soon proved to be badly labelled, overpriced, and ineffective, yet legal. Other colleagues have chosen the route of education, bringing brilliant products uncomfortably into a market where there is no certainty that a student’s qualification will get them a legitimate job. Some of my enthusiastic colleagues who chose to practice a hobby they have a constitutional right to, are still being harassed by police, and the number of arrests and illegal incarcerations is increasing, not decreasing. All of this is playing out while rural farmers that have lived off the proceeds of (illegally) selling this plant for generations now find themselves without customers for 6 months, and no one remembering the raw potential of African Cannabis.
I have chosen the road of agriculture for my family, applying for a hemp permit from the Department of Health when the first opportunity arrived. This opened a door to a whole new world of working with medical professionals with a background in medicine, not live plants. As a farmer who wants to grow Cannabis, more specifically hemp in this case, I fought through the jargon and protocol and built relationship with various individuals in SAHPRA. We eventually managed to get our first hemp permit. Unfortunately, a change in the wording between two versions of these permits disabled any hope of legitimate commercialisation of our plantings. Yet we as aspiring hemp farmers grew on these permitted sites, cementing what we’ve learnt before, collaborating en-masse with other permit holders, testing new varieties through the very few laboratories that had the guts to work with Cannabis, and getting a range of commercial products market-ready while trying to form some picture of what a future hemp and Cannabis farm in Africa should look like. While doing this, we learned more and more about this plant, sharing freely the knowledge that we gained along the way. These SAHPRA permits have since expired, rendering all our work illegal once again.
It was therefore with great excitement that we saw some seemingly good progress made in 2021. Hemp was defined in a new act, moved to the Department of Agriculture, declared as an agricultural crop and a fresh set of application guidelines published. The ominous task of familiarising myself with another set of guidelines and a photocopied government printer’s job of the Plant Improvement Act did not deter me from paying my application fee and submitting my documents as soon as the application process opened in October 2021. We expected to deal with a streamlined department that is used to deadlines and working under pressure. Different work styles caused much frustration, but a set of approved applications were in December submitted to the police for authorisation. The police, Mr President! What is this agricultural crop doing back in the hands of the justice cluster? It should be no surprise to you that it has been stuck in Minister Cele’s department for the past two months. Once again, my stomach growls on empty promises. And another season has gone. The first season in 3 that we were not allowed to plant hemp…
I can carry on and on about the struggles we face daily trying to educate, elevate and celebrate Cannabis. I will leave that to my colleagues and friends and wish they get an opportunity to tell their stories from prison, rehab, broken homes, the grave, or wherever they find themselves hiding today.
I would like to urge you, Mr President, please take Cannabis seriously. I don’t normally support a further inflating of the cabinet your predecessor left, but this calls for a new Ministry. It simply spans too wide a range of complicated matters to be locked into one department. Put that Ministry in the Presidency if you must. But please take this seriously. Industry is ready, we expect you to legalise and enable. We will normalise Cannabis through an industry-regulated network guided by partnering with government. A government hopefully guided by science, and not political or ideological views. And certainly not guided by those set to pursue the pilfering that you so desperately try to eradicate. Nobody in history has died from consuming Cannabis, we want to keep it that way.
I risk much signing this letter.
Natie Ferreira, Cannabis Farmer