The economic promise of cannabis

Legalising the industry would create sorely needed jobs, from growers to investors to the medical fraternity, according to speakers at the Cannabis Expo.

“Africa needs jobs,’’ and dagga might be the perfect solution to the continent’s unemployment challenges, according to entrepreneur François Swart.

In Zimbabwe, he said, “the informal sector is huge, which means we have upwards of 90% unemployment rate and we need jobs.” Swart said the cannabis industry can solve some of these problems.

A former corporate accountant who discarded his pinstripe suit for hemp clothing, Zimbabwe-born Swart runs The Green Organisation in Cape Town, an enterprise that makes clothing out of hemp.

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In his address at the recent Cannabis Expo, he decried the lack of legislation in South Africa fully legalising the use of the plant. But he does see a bright future ahead. “There are many opportunities in this industry and space for everybody to join,” he said, adding with a sense of urgency that “the time [for full legalisation] is now”.

“There is a global shift towards cannabis legalisation. South Africa is getting on board, Zimbabwe is getting on board. But if Africa wants to be first in taking advantage, we have to move now.” He warned: “If we do not act now, we are going to be left behind. So it’s up to government to change legislation promptly and give people in the industry a chance to develop [through] tax breaks, subsidies, things like that.”

The four-day trade and consumer exhibition dedicated to the cannabis industry took place for the first time in South Africa at The Time Square Casino in Tshwane in the same year the South African Constitutional Court ruled that the personal possession and use of dagga was no longer illegal.

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A number of industry participants — from growers to processors, users and legal practitioners — gathered to salivate and pontificate over the future of the plant in the country, and the world.

Visitors to the expo were greeted by throbbing hard rock music, presumably played to encourage gamblers at the venue to keep feeding coins into slot machines in pursuit of easy wealth.

But this did not distract the hundred or so people listening earnestly to a young man in a nearby hall. With his cap on backwards, he enthused: “The reason we’re at an expo like this is everyone is trying to monetise the cannabis industry. There is so much potential in this industry and it’s only a matter of time before the financial sector catches up.”

Standwa Nongauza is a representative of Easy Equities, a stockbroking firm that has seen the potentially lucrative opportunities in green fields of dagga and is trying to get an early lead in the industry.

“We’re the little legs that run between buyers and sellers [of stocks in companies that trade in cannabis products]”, said Nongauza, before launching into a pitch to buy shares through his company.

Audience members were clearly receptive to his enthusiast pitch, lining up in the corridor outside the hall after his talk for one-on-one consultations. And this was not the only organisation offering opportunities to invest in the industry — there were three other similar groupings at the expo.

Not to be left behind in anticipating future uses for the dagga plant in the country were some in the medical profession. “In the early 1930s, it was available in pharmacies. It formed part of many different medications and it was actually approved by the American Medical Association,” said Dr Shiksha Gallow from an organisation called Cannabis Oil Research, which has a website that provides information to the cannabis industry. She described herself as a medical scientist in clinical pathology. “I’ve got a few masters degrees, PhDs, stuff like that,” she said in the brief introduction to her talk, which was designed to show how effective cannabis is in the treatment of various ailments.

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Gallow’s was not a presentation about vague alternative medicine but one based on science. She cited an example of how effective cannabis is in treating the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. Patients afflicted with this condition, said the doctor, experience chronic pain and cannabis has been shown to be effective in treating this pain.

There is a palpable sense of anticipation at the expo, with khaki-clad farmers selling hydroponic irrigation systems — currently used for mainstream crops, but which can easily be used in the growing of dagga — rubbing shoulders with dreadlocked Rastafarians and hippies who extol the virtues of alternative medicine.

But with various participants bursting with optimism about the future of the industry, it was left to Kyle Telfer to pop the bubble. “There exists presently no legal industry in cannabis. The exchange of cannabis for money is not presently allowed,” said the lawyer from the Dagga Couple, a pro-cannabis lobby organisation founded by Julian Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke after the two were arrested for possession and dealing in the substance. It was through their efforts that the legal status of dagga changed.

Telfer went on to explain that instead of allowing the exchange of cannabis for money, “the judgment allows for the growing, use and possession of cannabis by an adult in private, around other consenting adults”. The Constitutional Court has directed Parliament to enact the necessary laws to give effect to the 2018 judgment.

The Cannabis Expo, with more than 40 exhibitors, was a success and the organisers are planning follow-up conferences for Cape Town in April, Durban in June and Pretoria again in November.

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