Cannabis in Africa Today

Allan MacDonell
Allan MacDonell - Content Writer

Feb 02 2021 - 4 min read

Most African countries after attaining independence hung on to their colonial cannabis prohibitions, strategically to stay in line with global pressure as applied by the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, and culturally because marijuana use was stigmatized among leaders in African society. Yesterday we looked at the History of Cannabis in Africa. Today, we’re looking at how cannabis is used in Africa in the 21st century.

Africa, Cannabis and the World

Even after the African continent joined the worldwide War on Drugs in the 1990s, clandestine cannabis cultivation, spurred on by economic catastrophes throughout the 1980s, expanded in many African countries. Control of distribution and sales of the illegal drug were often held by powerful people in the social hierarchy, such as military commanders’ spouses in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and members of the Liberia National Police’s presidential guard.

With the rapid legalization of medical and recreational cannabis in the United States and other Global Northern companies, postcolonial African governments are pursuing potential enrichment through licensing of cannabis production rights.

In line with a long history of foreign exploitation of African resources and workers, the legal cannabis farming in Africa today has yet to enrich African cannabis farmers.

22 African Countries Relax Cannabis Laws

Chris S. Duvall’s research concedes media tallies counting 22 African countries that have made moves toward relaxing cannabis prohibitions. Duvall also insists that these reforms are not being made to benefit African cannabis farmers.

The following countries have, to some degree, legalized cannabis either for export purposes or medical use:

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

Marijuana use in Egypt and Morocco is illegal but unenforced.

In 2019, Duvall reports, a Canadian pharmaceutical company (EXMceuticals) revealed that it had, in January 2017, “obtained a license for growing psychotropic and non-psychotropic cannabis on more than 10,000 acres in the DRC. Written into the contract is the potential for practically unlimited expansion of farm land.”

Duvall contends that the DRC government has never formally acknowledged the EXMceuticals cannabis farming operation, and has given no indication of how interested green rush entrepreneurs, local or foreign, might obtain similar licensing for marijuana production.

EXMceuticals, which defines itself as a “biotech company focused on cannabinoid extraction, purification and formulation for medical purposes,” subsequently announced cannabis production agreements with Malawi and Uganda.

The Kingdom of Lesotho began licensing cannabis production in 2017, but did not make regulations public until May 2018. A license to farm marijuana runs about $13,000. Licenses to manufacture, test, or export cannabis products are more expensive. Lesotho’s per capita income was $ 2,925 in 2017.

Duvall identifies British-owned Medi Kingdom, which proudly proclaims it is “Africa’s 1st Medical Cannabis Cultivator,” as the primary cannabis producer operating in Lesotho. Of the three other pharmaceutical companies Duvall was aware of operating cannabis productions in Lesotho, all are foreign-owned (Australia, Canada, South Africa, U.K., U.S.)

Duvall has documented similar evidence of Global Northern companies dipping into the postcolonial exploitation playbook to grab Africa’s cannabis resources and laborers in Malawi, Eswatini, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

In all cases but one, Global Northern companies have motivated the African governments to enter cannabis production partnerships. Only in Uganda has an African business, IHU, played a clear role in initiating deals with Global Northern entities. However, IHU’s role may be subordinated to foreign investors. EXMceuticals is 70 percent owner in its partnership with IHU.

African governments participating in cannabis production partnerships with Global Northern concerns, such as Uganda, Malawi, Eswatini and Lesotho, are uniformly tightlipped about details of their agreements. It’s anybody’s guess as to how many Africans have made money from these arrangements. Although a few Africans have been noted for participating in shared ownership in Uganda cannabis endeavors and as cannabis executives in DRC and Lesotho, the involvement of citizens from these countries in cannabis production appears largely confined to labor.

The cannabis production license fees published for Lesotho, Eswatini, and Zimbabwe are high enough to exclude most citizens of those countries from entrepreneurial participation. At the time when “A Brief Agricultural History of Cannabis in Africa” was posted, the costs and application processes for cannabis farming licenses in Uganda, DRC and Malawi had not even been made public.

None of the marijuana prohibition revisions in Africa’s cannabis liberalized countries permit personal possession or consumption of marijuana. All preexisting cannabis agriculture remains strongly discouraged.

So far, relaxation of cannabis prohibitions across the African continent has benefited Global Northern companies and shareholders active in the stock exchanges in Toronto, Tel Aviv, and Frankfurt, and done comparatively less good for most Africans.

Cannabis Strains from Africa

One irony of Africa’s vast and sophisticated history of developing particular cannabis strains for specific effects is that in 2018 Uganda’s IHU company imported seeds from Amsterdam to kick start Ugandan marijuana production. Two of the strains imported, Durban Poison and Power Plant, originated from African seed stock.

Although Amsterdam is considered the center of the global marijuana seed industry, Africa has been characterized as “the mothership for strains that will be huge factors in the future of medical cannabis.”

Centuries of African plant diversity and agricultural selection have created immense value in local strains and landraces (the original pure strains of modern crossbred cannabis) that will only increase going forward.

Amsterdam’s marijuana seed brokers own the world’s largest collections of African cannabis varieties, which brokers use to breed the world’s highest-priced hybrid seeds. This bioprospecting of African intellectual property has potential to amass exponential wealth deposits for Global North commercial seed breeders.

Is it too high an aspiration to hope the world’s richest seed sellers will find a way to return some of that value to the African cannabis farmers who are descendants of the forefathers of cannabis horticulture whose genius made those profits possible?

In case you missed it, we’ve also written a blog about the History of Cannabis in Africa which maps the legacy of cannabis on the continent.

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Written by
Allan MacDonell
Allan MacDonell

Contributing commentator Allan MacDonell’s work has been featured in publications ranging from Dazed and Confused UK to the New York Times and Washington Post. He is the author of Prisoner of X, Punk Elegies and Now That I Am Gone, and was a founding editorial director at online outlets including Buzznet, TakePart and Kindland. MacDonell views teaming with Leafwell as an opportunity to encourage the emerging role of legal cannabis as a highly effective medical treatment.

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