Hamish Sneyd | Middle East and North Africa Fellow
The change of attitude by some governments within Africa towards the regulation and export of medical cannabis presents an economic opportunity for African economies in the ever-growing cannabis market.
Medical cannabis would aid the economic diversification processes that many African states are seeking to implement. These states include Lesotho, South Africa, Rwanda, Zambia, Malawi, Ghana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Morocco. However, these rapidly shifting attitudes may have reached an impasse. Challenges for growing the cannabis industry include other African states maintaining inconsistent laws, fearful attitudes towards cannabis’ legal cultivation from the remaining African states who still view cannabis use as immoral and deviant, as well as the existing high regulatory production costs for countries where cultivating cannabis is legal. This signals an uphill battle both for the broader legal cultivation of cannabis in African economies, and for smaller local producers looking to stake their claim in the cannabis export market.
Throughout the world, medical cannabis is used for treating conditions such as arthritis, insomnia, epilepsy, anxiety, and pain relief for symptoms of terminal illness. Cannabis is also used recreationally, with the legal global cannabis market projected to reach USD$ 197.74 billion by 2028 as more countries pursue decriminalisation. The growing recognition and use of cannabis in treating physical and psychological conditions will only increase demand for it.
Africa has a long history of cannabis cultivation and use for medical, ceremonial, and recreational purposes. Expeditionary recounts depict large cannabis crops cultivated throughout the continent well before the colonial era. Many African countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa, maintain a comparative advantage for cultivating cannabis due to the region’s climate and strong agricultural workforce. Africa’s emergent cannabis industries are projected to reach USD$7.1 billion by 2023. Lesotho became the first African state to regulate its medical cultivation, and its maiden export to Canada in 2018 attracted world-wide intrigue about Africa’s potential to supply global demand. Since then, other countries including Zimbabwe, South Africa, Ghana, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia, Eswatini, Rwanda, and Morocco have all implemented regulatory frameworks for production, sale, and transport, with varying levels of strictness.
The motivation for many of these countries is purely economic. States such as Uganda, Rwanda, and Morocco view regulation as a driver for economic growth. While still in its infancy, Zambia’s emergent cannabis industry is projected to rake in US$36 billion annually. Malawi has multifaceted reasons, including the potential to diversify exports away from tobacco which has decreased in demand. It also recognises its medicinal uses and potential to address the continent’s endemic health challenges. Africa’s two most significant players are Morocco, which is Africa’s largest cannabis producer, and South Africa, which specifically seeks to target the growing European markets. South Africa’s cannabis industries have garnered reciprocal interest, with a projected annual growth rate of 28.4%. This has been generated by the increased local employment opportunities and international investment bound for South Africa’s cannabis industry and its broader economy. Similar shifting attitudes and state-level acknowledgements of its economic benefits are also taking place in the Middle East, with states such as Turkey and Lebanon viewing cannabis as a viable option for stimulating economic growth.
Despite all this, many African states remain fearful of broader recreational uses. The consumption of cannabis, either medical or recreational, remains illegal in many African countries with heavy penalties in place to discourage drug use and trafficking. States such as Nigeria and Tunisia uphold 4 and 5-year prison sentences respectively for marijuana possession, with the latter’s political class using drug laws to target political dissidents. Staunch opposition to cannabis in Africa is largely a colonial legacy as many colonial authorities deemed it an immoral habit to be prohibited in African and migrant communities on the continent. Systemic crackdowns on cannabis users has negatively impacted Africans throughout the world as highly racialised stigmas towards Africans and cannabis remain prominent in countries with strong African diasporas, only furthering systemic and cultural inequality for African people.
Even the growing global acknowledgment of herbal-based medical remedies, and the UN Commission on Narcotics and Drugs reclassifying cannabis as a less harmful substance, has not been enough to shift the views of most governments and the African Union. However, while opposition from above remains steadfast, the electoral interest in cannabis’ regulation generated by the eccentric candidate George Wajackoyah, who campaigned on cannabis regulation and captured the attention of youthful voters in Kenya’s recent election, provides some insight into the broader public opinion, particularly among younger people, towards cannabis regulation in Africa.
There are further practical challenges for smaller producers. Current start-up costs for cannabis production are extremely high and favour large-scale foreign players. For example in Malawi and Lesotho, the licensing fees for production are $10,000 and $35,000 respectively. Such exorbitant fees would render any economic benefits virtually unattainable for smaller producers and farmers.
There are also concerns about the various laws and enforcement measures of neighboring African states which could affect exports. For example, the Moroccan authorities are having trouble differentiating between legal and illegal cannabis crops, making proper enforcement difficult. Broader cannabis production and exports would also be hindered by continental efforts to tackle drug trafficking. Legal and regulated crops are susceptible to illicit financial flows and entrance into the black market of other states. Africa’s cannabis industries must also work to uphold the broader industry benefits for non-corporate stakeholders by prohibiting child labour and other exploitative practices unfortunately prevalent in African states, including those which have regulated cannabis like Malawi.
Africa has the potential to become a global leader for medical cannabis production, with significant economic opportunities that maintain a comparative advantage in its cultivation. However, it faces numerous hurdles in terms of policy and social norms, which will remain entrenched in many African governments for the foreseeable future.
Hamish Sneyd is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.