The President's 2023 State of the Union Address (SONA) reiterated the intention to accelerate the commercialization of hemp and cannabis to grow the economy and create much needed jobs. This was a reminder of the pledge during SONA 2022 to mobilize investment in the hemp and cannabis sector. Furthermore, it was mentioned that the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development and the Department of Health are working to create favourable conditions for the growth of the cannabis sector. Such words from the President were exciting when we first heard them four years ago; at last, it seemed, there would be action to unlock the great job creation and poverty alleviation potential of cannabis.
The President mentioned that urgent work is being finalised by Government to create an enabling regulatory framework for the utilization of the whole plant, including a legitimate purpose approach for complimentary medicines, food, cosmetics, as well as more industrial hemp products, aligned with international conventions and best practices. The main process for designing this enabling environment for a dynamic and safe cannabis sector is the development of the Cannabis Master Plan. In 2021 the office of the Presidency formed Working Groups mandated to review and revise the draft Cannabis Master Plan. The Working Groups were divided into five areas of work (pillars) covering amongst other issues: production; sustainable seed supplies; grower support; product development; processing; research, development and innovation; manufacturing; marketing; effective regulatory systems; building skills for the sector; and communication and awareness. These working groups consisted of representatives from government, the private sector, academic institutions, and the cannabis research community. We were off to a good start with a comprehensive process and wide stakeholder involvement, but for the last year nothing has happened.
The working groups, which some of us were part of, mysteriously collapsed and disappeared without a trace. Consultations with others in the sector confirm there is no work underway on the master plan and there is no other process we are aware of to finalise the much needed legislative and regulatory environment that could allow for the investment and growth needed in the sector. When the President mentioned “urgent work being completed”, was he aware all work had ground to a halt in the last year that he was reflecting on? While we dither in South Africa, countries from Germany to Australia are moving fast to open up a legal cannabis economy, meaning that we will have to play catch up in a global industry that we should have had a competitive advantage in.
We need to see urgent action and a first step would be to revive the Cannabis Master Plan Working Groups. In reviving the process, we need to do more to ensure the meaningful inclusion of township entrepreneurs and rural farmers in the deliberations and as beneficiaries of the plans developed.
Mentioning the cannabis sector in the SONA was welcome, but now it rings more and more hollow each year. Mr President, you need to ensure there is action; there are many people willing to help make it happen if given the chance. In a year’s time we hope you will be able to report in the SONA on real progress and a very different legal cannabis sector in our country.
Dr Motshedisi Mathibe (email@example.com)
Dr Marc Wegerif
Prof. Vanessa Steenkamp