A good case for commercial cannabis legalization in Africa

Since the 1990s, there has been a global shift in attitudes towards drug prohibitions. Countries have concluded that strict laws against drug use produce more problems than benefits.

Cannabis legalization has been at the forefront of this shift for decades, with more nations recognizing its industrial and medicinal uses and its potential for economic development.

Cannabis is not indigenous to Africa but is still an important crop in most regions. It was introduced to the continent in the 12th century through trading contacts with India and Persia.

Legislation against cannabis, also known as marijuana, in Africa, has existed as far back as the early 1900s, during which time most colonies had banned the drug.

In 1925, the International Opium Convention of Geneva included cannabis, and South Africa and Egypt were among the countries that signed it.

In recent years, however, several countries have joined in the global wave to legalise cannabis.

A few others are making moves to legalize marijuana, although the process is still hampered heavily by poor policy enforcement and religious conservatism.

Where is cannabis legal in Africa?

Legislation against cannabis is present in most African countries, although only a handful of governments actively prosecute marijuana growers and users.

Most states with pro-cannabis laws only cater for its medicinal and export purposes. Listed below are the eight countries with explicit laws allowing the cultivation of marijuana:

  • Lesotho
  • Zimbabwe
  • South Africa
  • Zambia
  • Uganda
  • Malawi
  • Ghana
  • Rwanda

Lesotho

In May 2017, Lesotho became the first African country to grant an administrative license for the commercial cultivation of marijuana for medical and scientific purposes.

However, the country had already adopted legislation allowing the cultivation, processing, and exportation of marijuana, locally known as matekoane, in 2008.

Since then, Lesotho has been transformed into a key destination for international investors. The country now boasts several investors who are listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Some of these include:

  • Canopy Growth
  • Verve Dynamics
  • Canadian Supreme Cannabis

However, there are no legal provisions for local consumption of the crop.

As a result, it is very difficult for local entrepreneurs to penetrate the market, and small farmers cannot benefit from the billion-dollar industry.

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe became the 2nd African country to legalize cannabis when it passed legislation allowing the cultivation, processing, and exportation of hemp in April 2018.

It inaugurated its first hemp plantation in September 2019. The project is led by Dr. Zorodzai Maroveke, a young dentist and prominent cannabis legalization activist.

In addition to hemp, the Zimbabwean government also awarded about thirty-seven licenses worth $50,000 each for the production of marijuana for medical use.

South Africa

According to the African Cannabis Report, the liberalization of cannabis could generate revenue of up to $1.8 billion for South Africa. In September 2018, its Supreme Court made a ruling authorizing production of cannabis for both medicinal and recreational purposes.

The ruling decriminalized possession of cannabis in private for personal consumption. However, the public use, sale, and supplying of marijuana for recreational use is still illegal.

The ruling, although still restrictive, makes South Africa the only country in Africa in which the recreational use of marijuana is legalized.

Cannabis products considered to be health supplements those containing a daily dose of less than 20mg CBD, or less than 0.001% of THC are also legal in South Africa.

Uganda

Through its Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 2015, Uganda legalized the cultivation, production, and exportation of medical marijuana.

It mandated the Health Minister to issue written consent for a license. However, the absence of clear guidelines has slowed down the industry’s growth.

Industrial Hemp Uganda, a local private company, was the first to acquire a license in 2012. Together with its partner, Israeli company Together Pharma, the company has monopolized the marijuana export industry since 2018.

It is only in 2021 that other companies were able to acquire licenses.

The Health Minister told a local newspaper that issues with delays in license issuance would be ironed out after the Cabinet approved the final guidelines on cannabis, which were presented to them in April 2021.

In 2019, Uganda struck a 10-year deal to export $160 million worth of marijuana to 20,000 pharmacies in Canada and Germany.

To date, marijuana can only be grown for export, and local use is still illegal.

Zambia

Zambia legalized medical marijuana for export in December 2019. However, local use of medical marijuana was not legal until March 2021, when a law making cannabis legal for medical use and research purposes was passed.

Entry into the local market is still an uphill task, with a steep annual licensing fee of $250,000.

Marijuana could generate up to $36 billion annually for Zambia, which would greatly contribute to lowering the country’s debt burden, which has risen to over $10.5 billion every year.

Malawi

Tobacco is Malawi’s leading export, contributing over 60% of the country’s revenue. In recent years, the crop has seen a drop in sales due to ongoing global anti-smoking campaigns.

Cannabis was presented as a more profitable alternative to tobacco, and a bill that legalized its cultivation and processing for medicines and industrial hemp was passed in February 2020.

The law, however, stops short of decriminalizing marijuana for recreational use.

Ghana

In March 2020, the Narcotics Control Commission Bill, 2019 was passed into law. It allowed the production of cannabis for health and industrial purposes.

The Hemp Association of Ghana (HAG) has already signed a deal with a Portugal-based Ghanaian cannabis business. This move will reportedly gross over $56 million in the next five years from just 100 acres of cannabis.

Rwanda

Rwanda permitted the production and processing of medical marijuana for export in October 2020. Under the Rwanda Development Board, marijuana exports are expected to boost the economy, with projected earnings of $10 million per hectare.

Local consumption and even medical use are still banned. Possession is punishable by a jail term of up to 2 years, while dealers can face 20 years to life in prison.

Which African countries are looking to legalize cannabis?

Local efforts to push for cannabis legalization in most African countries have been largely unsuccessful. Countries like Morocco, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa are among the top consumers of cannabis on the continent.

South Africa and Morocco legalised cannabis. Recreational use is only legal in South Africa.

In Kenya, legalization has been on the table since 2018 when then Kibra MP, Ken Okoth, wrote to the National Assembly speaker asking him to facilitate the Marijuana Control Bill, which sought to decriminalize the growth and use of marijuana.

However, deliberation on the bill has been slow.

Nigeria’s cannabis market could be worth $3.7 billion by 2023 if cannabis use is legalized.

With the continent’s highest population and favorable growing conditions, Nigeria presents an opportunity for large scale production and local consumption to supplement export revenues.

Ondo State governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, recently called on the Nigerian government to legalize the cultivation of medical marijuana. The conversation on legalization has been kicked off, but there is still considerable push back from religious conservative groups.

In 2019, PSIQ acquired a $2,500,000 license to grow and process marijuana in Eswatini, despite the absence of clear legislation regarding cannabis legalization.

The Southern African state has a thriving black market cannabis industry, and steps towards legalization have been surrounded by controversy involving King Mswati III, the head of state.

What are the potential benefits of making cannabis legal in Africa?

The global legal cannabis market is currently valued at $150 billion, and a report by Barclays projects that value to up to $272 billion by 2028.

Africa could earn $7.1 billion from cannabis in 2023 if more countries make cannabis legal. This projected economic benefit is the main factor pushing most African states to make marijuana legal in Africa.

But the legalization of cannabis in Africa promises several other benefits for the continent. For decades, the black market has been the only place to acquire marijuana in Africa.

The black markets are often associated with organized crime. Cannabis legalization would dismantle these crime syndicates.

Dispensaries would have to be registered with the state, easing to regulation and taxation. The legalization of marijuana renders creation of quality and safety control standards.

This protects consumers from dangerous “laced” marijuana products which could be detrimental to their health, and also reduces the burden on the health system in the long run by preventing incidents involving accidental overdoses on unknown substances.

Additionally, with marijuana legalization, police forces would be free to focus on violent crimes, reducing the crime burden on the continent.

What are the major hurdles against making marijuana legal in Africa?

The biggest hurdle on the road to making marijuana legal in Africa is probably the traditionally conservative attitudes of Africans towards marijuana.

Many associate the drug with delinquency and crime, and this conservatism is bolstered by religious ideologies against the use of psychotropic substances.

Some countries, like Eswatini, are reluctant to give up the lucrative black-market trade of marijuana, with the Swazi king accused of making personally beneficial deals with foreign companies behind the backs of legislators.

Another significant hiccup many African countries may encounter in the road to cannabis legalization is the lack of equipment, facilities, and skilled local personnel.

The cannabis industry is a wide-open opportunity for African countries to cash into a growing global market that could earn billions and provide the answer to Africa’s economic problem.

Gerald Ainomugisha is a freelance Content Solutions Provider (CSP) offering both content and copy writing services for businesses of all kinds, especially in the niches of management, marketing and technology.