Sa­man­tha Enslin-Payne Hey, bro: is le­gal­is­ing weed the way to go?

Sunday Times - - Business Times - Sa­man­tha Enslin-Payne Enslin-Payne is deputy ed­i­tor of Busi­ness Times

Just think how large-scale com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion of cannabis, along with pro­cess­ing, pack­ag­ing, dis­tri­bu­tion and re­tail­ing, could swell the state’s cof­fers with ad­di­tional taxes and cre­ate much-needed jobs.

But could le­gal­is­ing mar­i­juana have un­in­tended con­se­quences?

Last week, Zim­babwe de­cided to al­low com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion of cannabis for med­i­cal and re­search pur­poses, fol­low­ing Le­sotho.

In the US, grow­ing and con­sum­ing cannabis for med­i­cal and recre­ational pur­poses is now al­lowed in some states.

Is South Africa miss­ing out on a big ex­port op­por­tu­nity?

Is our cash-strapped gov­ern­ment turn­ing a blind eye to a po­ten­tial source of ad­di­tional tax?

Af­ter all, sin taxes on to­bacco and al­co­hol net the state bil­lions each year, and sales of cannabis oil and lo­tions could, for ex­am­ple, bring in ad­di­tional VAT.

In March last year, the High Court in Cape Town ruled that it was per­mis­si­ble to pos­sess, cul­ti­vate and use dagga at home, for pri­vate use.

The court also ruled that the Drugs and Drug Traf­fick­ing Act and the Medicines and Re­lated Sub­stances Act need to be amended within two years of the judg­ment.

But that was not the end of it. The min­is­ter of jus­tice and con­sti­tu­tional devel­op­ment, with four other min­is­ters and the NPA, took the mat­ter on ap­peal to the Con­sti­tu­tional Court, where judg­ment is now pend­ing.

Even if the Con­sti­tu­tional Court con­curs with the judg­ment, it doesn’t fol­low that com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion will en­sue.

But should that be the next le­gal en­deav­our?

In Zim­babwe, to get a li­cence to cul­ti­vate the plant will re­port­edly cost $50 000 (about R633 000) and the li­cence will likely need to be re­newed, mean­ing small grow­ers will be side­lined by those with deep pock­ets.

Cur­rently, the grow­ing and sale of cannabis in South Africa is mostly the pre­serve of those who have lim­ited op­tions be­cause of high un­em­ploy­ment.

Le­gal com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion in South Africa would push out small pro­duc­ers who are pro­vid­ing much-needed in­come for their fam­i­lies.

And while those who are un­em­ployed should not have to re­sort to a risky oc­cu­pa­tion to make ends meet, in many cases there are just no other op­tions. For ex­am­ple, in ru­ral ar­eas in the East­ern Cape and KWAZULU-NA­TAL, the ex­panded un­em­ploy­ment rate is 50% and 41% re­spec­tively.

The har­vest­ing, pro­cess­ing, pack­ag­ing, brand­ing, ad­ver­tis­ing and re­tail­ing of cannabis prod­ucts could cre­ate jobs, but with in­creas­ing mech­a­ni­sa­tion of much of the pro­duc­tion chain, per­haps not as many jobs as ex­pected.

If cannabis pro­duc­tion was com­mer­cialised, for ex­ist­ing grow­ers in South Africa to get con­sis­tent yields in or­der to sup­ply pro­ces­sors for var­i­ous oils, lo­tions and other prod­ucts they would likely re­quire tem­per­a­ture- and light-con­trolled green­houses. This re­quires in­vest­ment.

So it’s no guess who would be the win­ners if mar­i­juana was le­galised.

But le­gal­is­ing com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion could have un­in­tended side ef­fects

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