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Beyond the plumes of smoke the weed economy on a high

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In September, South Africa became the third country on the continent to pass a ruling favoring cannabis. Last month, Canada fully legalized its use. The world of business and medicine is slowly awakening to its benefits, weeding fact from fiction.

House of Tandoor, a trendy rooftop bar that pulsates with life on the weekends, with reggae music, dancers and cannabis smokers disappearing under thick clouds of smoke, is as quiet as a church when we visit on a Monday morning.

It is situated on Rockey Street in the vibrant, often-chaotic suburb of Yeoville in Johannesburg. This area is a hub for expatriates and small business owners plying their trade at informal markets.

Inside the bar at House of Tandoor on this September day is a tall, elderly man with a long beard, lost in the pages of a newspaper and smoking a joint.

It has been two weeks since the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg decriminalized the personal consumption of cannabis in private spaces.

In this small suburb, cannabis has always been an open secret, savored not-too-discreetly  in the smoky beer dens and even openly on the streets. Regulars swear this is where you find the best cannabis in town.

For 23 years, the tall man with the beard at the bar named Eric Mpobole has been a cannabis activist in South Africa. He is the co-owner of House of Tandoor.

“Here in Yeoville, this is a ganja village. It has been so for two decades. So for the government to decriminalize [ganja]… we decriminalized it a long time ago,” he tells FORBES AFRICA, exhaling smoke.

A weed plant growing in the outskirts of johannesburg. Photo by Karen Mwendera.

More than two decades ago, Mpobole started out at House of Tandoor as a sound engineer and DJ, with Langa Mradu.

In 2002, the two took over the place turning it into a hotspot for people wanting to sway to reggae music, indulge in a game of pool, and smoke a joint (rolled cannabis) or two.

Born and bred in the township of Soweto in Orlando East, to Rastafarian parents, Mpobole had his first taste of cannabis at the age of 13.

“I didn’t become Rastafarian, I was born Rasta,” he says.

The 50-year-old firmly believes cannabis (also called weed, dagga, ganga or marijuana) has helped keep him healthy.

Last year, he planted cannabis seeds, and they grew into a plantation he now calls the “plantation of God”.

This is in a bushy fenced-off area, located a 10-minute drive outside of Johannesburg’s central business district; he does not tell us where it is. He shows us a video of the plantation on his phone and you see four-meter-tall cannabis plants.

A few days before we meet him, he had harvested them for medicinal purposes. With the new ruling in South Africa, he plans to grow more cannabis at a bigger location.

Mpobole is hopeful the next step will be the commercialization of cannabis.

“We need to educate them [people] on how to grow, how to process it and how to take it to the market,” he says.

“If I was there in the decision room, I would suggest one thing, that why can’t we treat marijuana like any vegetable or any fruit?” he says, as he lights up yet another joint, and gets down to some pressing matters.

A new freedom?

In the afternoon, on a balcony at House of Tandoor, a group of men in dreadlocks sit relaxed under plumes of smoke, listening to the mellow tunes wafting in, and watching the hustle and bustle of Yeoville’s colorful streets below.

They are basking in the dawn of a new era, smoking cannabis in their own space without fear of the police.

It’s a new kind of freedom.

Mradu, the co-owner of House of Tandoor, is one of the men on the balcony.

He wears a beanie, dark shades and a psychedelic t-shirt with a graphic of Bob Marley smoking cannabis.

Before the ruling, Mradu says he had been arrested and detained by the police for possession of cannabis too many times to count.

“To me, ganja has been legalized, [but] it has been free all my life, because even if I get arrested, you find the same thing in prison.

“I even smoked in the prison cells, why must I be scared of the police?”

Mradu has been an advocate of cannabis ever since he was a boy growing up in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.

He says he does not drink alcohol or take any drugs.

“People are saying no to ganja because they don’t know what it is,” he says, crushing a bud of cannabis in his palm, then delicately placing it on brown rolling paper. He licks the sticky end, carefully rolls the blunt in between his thumb and index finger and then strikes a match.

It lights up and he proceeds to take a deep puff, then deliciously exhales the smoke.

“The government should legalize ganja, but they have to teach people to know what is ganja, what does ganja do to a human being. They need to have programs on television and newspapers on what is ganja,” he reiterates.

Underneath his seat is a plastic bag with dozens of “bankies” (weed stuffed into transparent bank coin bags).

He says the strands of cannabis come from the neighboring Kingdom of eSwatini that locals refer to as Swazi Gold or Green House. It is grown in the Hhohho region in a wet and warm forest-filled town in the north called Piggs Peak.

Some of the weed smoked in South Africa allegedly also comes from Lesotho in the mountainous northeastern Mokhotlong district or from the rural outskirts of South Africa in Pondoland in the Eastern Cape.

It is an illicit market hard to track.

READ MORE: The Price Of Puff

According to the UN’s World Drug Report 2018, there were 151 countries that reported cannabis drug seizures between 2012 and 2016.

This means that the illicit market for cannabis consumption or trade is a thriving market that is still under the radar.

Cannabis has been illegal in South Africa since the early 20th century when the prohibition of the sale of cannabis came to pass.

In 1922, a period marked by extreme apartheid laws, regulations were issued under an amended Customs and Excises Duty Act that criminalized the possession and use of “habit-forming drugs” including dagga.

It also prohibited the cultivation and sale of the plant.

“This period in South African history [1850 to 1925] is marked by the rise of the segregationist state and the entrenchment of racist laws. It is argued that the prohibition of cannabis in South Africa was an almost inadvertent result of attempts to scientifically justify colonial oppression,” states researcher and historian Craig Paterson in his master’s thesis for Rhodes University in 2009.

In Prohibition & Resistance: A Socio-Political Exploration of the Changing Dynamics of the Southern African Cannabis Trade, c. 1850 – the present, he examines the trade of cannabis in South Africa after its prohibition.

In the 2018 ruling, the Constitutional Court found that the criminalization of cannabis (and its history) was characterized by racism as it was used by many indigenous South Africans and was not as harmful as historically argued.

Not entirely off the hook

In South Africa alone, statistics reveal that in 2015 – 2016, possession of cannabis made up a staggering 65% of all drug-related crimes recorded by the South African Police Service’s (SAPS) annual crime report.

These were people who were either caught in possession of or trading cannabis.

Police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo from SAPS says “that drug [cannabis] is hardly ever imported. Most of the time, it is exported. Most of it is grown here, in and around the country”.

Although cannabis has been decriminalized to an extent, it does not mean cannabis users are entirely off the hook.

The Constitutional Court ruling does not mention the quantity of cannabis that qualifies as personal use and what qualifies as ‘dealing’.

“All I’m saying to people is they must interpret the ruling on their own. What we have done as an organization is we have given guidance to our police officers on how to conduct themselves,” says Naidoo.

He tells FORBES AFRICA that some arrests have been made even after the ruling; these were people found in possession of cannabis in a public space or ‘dealing’ it.

 

The dagga couple

On the outskirts of Johannesburg, in Lanseria, is a couple who have dedicated their lives advocating for cannabis.

A few days before their interview with FORBES AFRICA in September, they had cops at their door wanting to search their home.

On the Thursday morning we meet them, they are in their lodge, called the Jazz Farm, with a garden featuring plants of all kinds. Three dogs lie in the living room with not a care in the world.

The cannabis oil they make at home has become daily medicine for one of their pups suffering from arthritis.

In their living room, adorned with colorful art, a coffee table is the resting place for bongs, containers filled with cannabis, and lighters.

Myrtle Clarke, 53, and Julian Stobbs, 58, call themselves “the dagga couple”.

Myrtle Clarke and Stobbs. Photo by Karen Mwendera.

The pair who worked in South Africa’s film and media industry have been cannabis smokers for over 30 years.

But it was 2010, the year they got raided and arrested for the possession of cannabis, which triggered their fight for the rights of cannabis users.

At 2AM on a cold August morning that year, police were banging on their kitchen door. Stobbs opened it with nothing on but his underpants when six guns were stuck into his face.

“Have you got illegal drugs in this house?” the cop shouted.

The couple said yes and proceeded to show the police their stash.

They searched their home without a warrant, taking anything and everything related to cannabis, from books to bongs to buds.

They were convinced the couple were running a syndicate drug lab.

“We were totally in shock,” says Clarke, denying the allegations.

The police found no evidence of a drug lab, only cannabis that the couple consumed themselves.

After being detained by the police in their home for five hours, they were taken to the police station not far from their home for questioning, and kept in a shabby, smelly holding cell.

At 4PM the next day, they were released after a R1,000 ($70) bail.

They were charged with the possession of cannabis.

Their court appearance was supposed to take place early 2012, but was postponed.

In the meantime, they studied a book titled Cannabis Human Rights And The Law, given to them by a friend, and learned about the rights they have as cannabis users.

“There’s only a crime if there’s a victim, and [cannabis] is this victimless crime thing,” Clarke says.

In a turn of events, they went from being plaintiffs to defendants.

Instead of facing charges, the couple sued seven different government departments for human rights violations.

They claimed that the plant should be completely legalized to grow, buy, sell and use for recreational or medicinal use.

A year later, in 2013, they registered an NGO called Fields of Green for All aimed at reforming South Africa’s cannabis laws.

Their postponed trial eventually happened in August 2017.

However, nothing was concluded as “the court proceedings went over time”.

The couple are still awaiting a new date for the trial but in the meantime are doing everything they can to challenge South Africa’s cannabis laws.

They were invited as keynote speakers at the SA Drug Policy Week 2018 in October in Cape Town to enlighten and educate attendees on the use of cannabis.

In their kitchen, on the counter, is a large transparent jar with dozens of cannabis buds.

“Look at that, how can that be illegal, look how beautiful it is. It’s God’s gift. You think God made a mistake?” says Stobbs.

“Cannabis is just part of my persona, and I’m the proof that it doesn’t make you stupid or lazy, and we have achieved what we have achieved by being daily cannabis users.”

“It has been a fight because it’s very difficult to get people to take you seriously. But now that we’ve got the judgment, they will listen to us, at last,” adds Clarke.

The couple wish they could settle down and retire in their lodge but they want to continue the fight.

Next on their agenda? To achieve complete cannabis legalization in the country.

 

‘Marijuana ruined my life’

Critics of the cannabis ruling are concerned its legalization will cause more harm than good.

Twenty two-year-old Micheal Mojapelo has been clean off cannabis for four years now and has dedicated his life to helping drug abusers based in South Africa.

He is dressed in an orange shirt barely covering the tattoos on his left arm, and a green cap adorned with buttons, when we meet him.

He was only 12 years old when he first tried cannabis.

“The first time I smoked marijuana, I wanted to be cool. And then I found that marijuana did for me what I could not do for myself. Which is basically make me feel better about myself. It made me feel confident. It gave me self-esteem. But that’s because I have a disease of addiction,” he says, his voice thick with emotion.

And only when he turned 18 did his life change for the worse. In high school, he mixed with the wrong people and experimented with other drugs.

“I ended up dealing, and it wasn’t just marijuana. I used to deal crack cocaine, I used to deal kat. And I ended up living in a crack house,” he says.

As a result, he failed his matric year.

Reality sunk in and he was forced to make a decision to change his life for the sake of his family.

Making the decision to go to rehab, Mojapelo stopped smoking completely.

“I stopped because smoking marijuana ruined my life,” he tells FORBES AFRICA regretfully.

He checked into the Crossroads Recovery Centre, a drug rehabilitation center based in Johannesburg, where he met with Taku Mhonyera, who owns the branch and is the head of treatment.

“When he came to rehabilitation, he was just lazy. [His addiction] took away the motivation and life was passing by. That’s the whole point of this kind of stuff, so it’s sad to see when it’s in that form, you know,” says Mhonyera.

Mhonyera has dealt with over a thousand clients and drug abusers but he says cannabis abusers only make up a small percentage of them.

Micheal Mojapelo and Taku Mhonyera.

“When people end up in treatment, specifically because of marijuana, it’s very sad to see, because someone goes up and they can’t actually come down,” he says.

Despite the way the plant affected Mojapelo’s life, he is hopeful one day he can launch his own business to support his child. He wants nothing to do with the cannabis industry.

“The risks of cannabis are many. It is addictive and may lead to dependence and withdrawal. Intoxication may cause disturbances in levels of consciousness, perception or behavior,” says psychiatrist Hemant Nowbath, a member of the South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP) based in the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.

“People who use cannabis have higher risks for depression and anxiety. Cannabis may also cause psychosis and lower the age of the onset of schizophrenia. Cannabis could impair cognitive functions leading to poor school performance and diminished achievement,” he adds.

“Motor coordination may be impaired leading to an effect on driving ability and the increased risk of injury. Acute cardiovascular effects including myocardial infarction and strokes may occur.”

Nowbath is concerned the new ruling could lead to greater abuse of cannabis, increase the rates of addiction, and aggravate the medical, psychosocial and psychiatric problems caused by it.

“In a country like South Africa marked by inequality and economic disparity, the vulnerable will be more significantly affected by these problems,” he adds.

The Constitutional Court has given parliament two years to update the legislation relating to marijuana to be in line with its ruling.

The next big business?

Since the September ruling, some businesses in South Africa are looking at innovative ways to cash in.

In Durban, a craft brewery called Poison City Brewing has created Poison Cannabis IPA and Durban Poison Cannabis Lager.

On its website, the company says that the Poison Cannabis IPA beverage contains hemp or Cannabis Sativa flavor, aroma and oils, while the Durban Poison Cannabis Lager contains no THC.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the key principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis, is what gets one high.

The company, which was launched in March 2015, currently retails the drinks at select stores and on its website. The beers were launched in September.

Internationally, multi-billion dollar beverage brand Coca-Cola has also been looking closely.

“Along with many others in the beverage industry, we are watching the growth of this ingredient in functional wellness beverages around the world. The current discussion had in North America was purely exploratory,” says the company in a statement to FORBES AFRICA.

But just how much is the global cannabis industry worth?

It is estimated that by 2022, the legal spending of cannabis in the rest of world would be $32 billion.

This was cited in The State of Legal Marijuana Markets, Sixth Edition, a report published by Arcview Market Research in partnership with BDS Analytics, a company that produces cannabis industry market trends and consumer insights.

“We are talking about an industry in which $12.9 billion will be spent this year,” Tom Adams, Managing Director of Industry Intelligence for BDS Analytics, tells FORBES AFRICA.

Tom Adams. Photo provided.

That’s up from $9.5 billion last year.

“There are lots of fast-growing industries, but I have never seen anything like this,” he adds.

News reports say Canopy Growth Corporation, a medical marijuana company in Canada, received $4 billion at the end of 2017 after an investment by Constellation Brands, maker of Corona beer.

Canopy Growth generated $54 million in revenue. Weed stocks surged as Canada prepared to legalize marijuana in October and Canopy Growth climbed more than 14%, hitting a record high of $57 a share.

All eyes are on Canada as it legalized recreational marijuana last month, becoming the second country in the world to do so after Uruguay.

Says Shane MacGuill, Head of Tobacco Research at market research provider Euromonitor International, in a press statement soon after the legalization of cannabis in Canada: “This full, (almost) no-holds-barred legalization of recreational cannabis – the first of its type in the world – is a historic landmark in the rapidly developing global debate.

The evolution of the Canadian market – and in particular its economic, excise and societal impact – will be closely monitored internationally by those looking for ballast on both sides of the policy conversation.

It also shifts the spotlight on to the next markets weighing liberalization moves – the neighboring US, Australia and some EU member states to name just a few of a what is set to become a rolling tide of legalization.”

Legalizing marijuana ‘edibles’ are next on Canada’s agenda according to a report by Bloomberg.

Despite cannabis being still illegal in many parts of the world, Adams says it is “a massive existing consumer product category”.

If countries opt to fully legalize cannabis and regulate its trade, he says there will be enormous economic benefits.

These include employment and business opportunities, health benefits, investments, and a line of by-products such as edibles, vape pens, and more that can have a multiplying effect.

“There’s an opportunity reached out into every field to capitalize on the fast-growing legal industry,” says Adams.

Adult use VS Medical Use. Graph: The State of Legal Marijuana Markets, Sixth Edition.

Adult-Use Over Medical-Use

Currently, many of the countries with partially-legalized cannabis have been reaping the benefits of medical marijuana.

It is estimated that by 2022, legal adult-use spending on cannabis will reach $20.9 billion, while medical spending will hit $11.2 billion. This $9.7 billion difference is in spite of the fact that medical-use is legalized in more countries than legal adult-use.

World Wide Legal Spending on Cannabis. Graph: The State of Legal Marijuana Markets, Sixth Edition.

“Even with the broadening of medical programs around the globe and strong medical sales, adult-use markets are expected to outpace medical-only markets by the end of this year,” the report says.

The illicit cannabis market, which remains untraceable, could potentially increase the value of the cannabis industry.

With its legalization, governments would also need a legal structure in place to ensure that it becomes a fully-functioning economy.

“You can have legalization, but if you don’t have regulation as well, the economic benefits just don’t appear,” says Adams.

Closer home, African countries have the best climate to grow cannabis.

“Much of Africa has the perfect climate for growing cannabis and economic situations that allow it to do it very cheaply because the labor costs are very low and therefore, this is a phenomenal opportunity for economic development for a lot of African countries,” he says.

However, only three countries on the continent have legalized the growing of cannabis to some extent, namely Zimbabwe, Lesotho and South Africa.

Based on Paterson’s 2009 report, “It is hard to estimate either the quantity of cannabis produced in southern Africa or the monetary value of its trade.”

Many are not willing to disclose the numbers.

“In reality, very few people involved in the southern African cannabis trade have managed to dramatically improve their standard of living. Usually, they have only managed to supplement their income, or to create a limited source of extra income,” he says.

Additionally, locally-produced cannabis is done at a low price. This means that even the wholesalers and large-scale dealers of cannabis do not derive an exceptionally large income from it, he says.

However, according to Aadil Patel, National Head of the Employment practice at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, a commercial law firm in South Africa, if Africa were to achieve full legalization of cannabis, this would result in many employment opportunities.

Aadil Patel. Photo provided

Because the South African climate is favorable for growing cannabis, “one can imagine the jobs that could be created through cannabis farms”, he tells FORBES AFRICA.

“The establishment of such farms will have a knock-on effect and create other employment opportunities related to the fields of business (including buyers, sellers, advertisers and other entrepreneurs), medicine and religion,” he says.

In terms of where the future of cannabis may go, Adams believes complete legalization around the world is sure to happen and it is only a matter of time.

But until then, those operating in the illicit market will be the only

ones benefiting.

On a global scale, investors are silently monitoring the growing trends of what could be the next big emerging market.

It would be interesting to see, much like many of Africa’s natural resources, whether a small hairy green cannabis bud would light up the African economy.

 

Medical Marijuana

A banky of weed. Photo by Karen Mwendera.

Cannabis is widely debated to have different medical benefits.

Researchers have shown the chemical compounds in marijuana have medicinal applications. According to Medical Cannabis Dispensary, a South African online resource for medical marijuana, cannabis could assist people suffering with the following diseases.

1.Alzheimer’s: Studies have shown that marijuana may be effective in inhibiting the progression of this disease through a variety of biological mechanisms.

2.Cancer: Some doctors prescribe the use of marijuana as an aid to help combat the disease and mollify the effects of chemotherapy. “Studies have also shown a positive effect in regards to inhibiting tumor growth in leukemia and breast cancer as well as the invasion of cervical cancer, liver cancer, brain cancer and lung cancer cells,” says the Medical Cannabis Dispensary.

3.Arthritis: Studies have shown that medical marijuana has the ability to reduce joint inflammation and related pain symptoms.

4.Glaucoma: The use of medical marijuana can not only help stop the damage caused by intraocular pressure, but can also help reverse deterioration of the optic nerve.

5.HIV: Medical marijuana is effective in treating the symptoms caused by many HIV medications, including nausea, lack of appetite, nerve pain, anxiety, depression and insomnia.

6.Pain relief: One of the most common uses of medical marijuana is for the treatment of chronic pain. Cannabinoids, the medical compound found in marijuana, has pain-relieving (analgesic) properties.

 

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