Rural dagga farmers – the same ones highlighted by Ramaphosa – say they'll be 'criminalised' by new laws

Business Insider SA
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)
  • South Africa's Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill, currently before Parliament, looks to build on the Constitutional Court's 2018 ruling that decriminalised private and personal use of the plant.
  • President Cyril Ramaphosa recently said these types of new policy and regulatory frameworks would unlock potential and bring "our people in the Eastern Cape" into the market.
  • But a group of Eastern Cape cannabis growers, represented by the Umzimvubu Farmers Support Network, said the Bill in its current form would continue to criminalise them.
  • The amaMpondo have farmed, used, and traded cannabis for over three centuries, noted the group in its objection to the Bill.
  • "Arbitrary" limitations on plant size, numbers of plants, and concentrations of cannabinoids presented by the Bill will do exactly the opposite of what President Ramaphosa said in his State of the Nation Address, argues the group.
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Traditional cannabis growers in the rural Eastern Cape, the same ones assured of inclusion by President Cyril Ramaphosa, are objecting to proposed laws aimed at regulating the use and possession of the plant.

South Africa's cannabis industry received a major boost from the Constitutional Court's 2018 ruling that decriminalised private and personal use of the plant. The landmark ruling has been followed by an uptick in commercial ventures and the development of a Cannabis Master Plan tasked with industrialising the plant, tapping into a R28 billion sector and supporting up to 25,000 jobs.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, during his most recent State of the Nation Address in February, highlighted the need to review "policy and regulatory framework for industrial hemp and cannabis to realise the huge potential for investment and job creation."

"Our people in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and elsewhere are ready to farm with this age-old commodity and bring it to market in new and innovative forms," said the President.

The first step of this process has already started, with the Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill before Parliament. The Bill looks to build on the 2018 Constitutional Court ruling, and although it alludes to commercial activities "in respect of recreational cannabis," it doesn't actively address full-scale industrialisation as touted by the Cannabis Master Plan. That level of commercialisation is expected to be detailed by an additional Bill.

In the meantime, the Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill proposes prescribed quantities of cannabis plants for possession and cultivation. The Bill, drafted by the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, is currently being debated during the second round of public participation meetings.

And while most respondents welcome the need for clarity following the Constitutional Court ruling, objections to some aspects of the Bill have been fierce.

One such group that has been actively involved in this public participation process, submitting multiple objections and proposed amendments, is the Umzimvubu Farmers Support Network (UFSN).

The UFSN represents traditional cannabis growers in the Eastern Cape's Greater Umzimvubu District.

"The UFSN was formed in 2014 as a voluntary association between civil society members and indigenous cannabis farmers, and formally registered as a non-profit company during early 2019," noted the group's written submission to the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services in 2020.

"The registered beneficiaries of the UFSN are the hundreds of thousands of rural cannabis farmers situated in inter alia the Greater Umzimvubu River Basin region – the South Africans who are traditionally and culturally known as the amaMpondo aseQuakeni. The amaMpondo have farmed, used, and traded cannabis for over three centuries."

The UFSN argues that the Bill, in its current form, would "criminalise the amaMpondo cannabis farmers" and threaten their livelihoods instead of them benefiting from new frameworks, as mentioned by Ramaphosa. The group also said that its submissions had not been considered when drafting the latest version of the Bill.

"We say this because it remains abundantly clear that the Bill does not, even in the slightest, make provision for the centuries-old custom of cannabis use and cultivation by the beneficiaries of the UFSN, who remain the hundreds of thousands of amaMpondo cannabis farmers," the group said in its latest submission.

"Yes, these are the same farmers that our Honourable President Ramaphosa specifically mentioned in his most recent State of the Nation Address."

Chief among the group's concerns are the myriad of "arbitrary" limitations on plant size, numbers of plants, and concentrations of cannabinoids that will be used to distinguish legal use – in a private and personal capacity – from illegal statutory crimes, including dealing in terms of the Drugs and Drugs Trafficking Act.

"The Bill, in general terms, criminalises the amaMpondo because it fails to appreciate the sheer diversity of cannabis cultivars by setting maximum plant heights and associated maximum amount an adult may possess. Many cultivars grow in excess of 2m. Many households currently have stockpiles of cannabis in excess of 50kg," Ricky Stone, attorney at Cullinan & Associates representing the UFSN, told Business Insider.

"[It also fails to] appreciate that 'hemp' is not some different type of cannabis – a cousin if you wish – and that the landrace cannabis grown by the amaMpondo may also be used for hemp [or] industrial purposes."

In addition to these shortcomings, the Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill, in its current form, doesn't include "entrenched customary and indigenous rights to cultivate, possess, use, and trade cannabis", according to Stone.

"Rather shockingly, for the second time now, per yesterday's [Tuesday's] feedback from the State Law Advisor, the Portfolio Committee on Justice, through the State Law Advisor, has not even acknowledged the UFSN's written and oral submissions in the list of submissions they are considering to revise the, still patently unconstitutional, bill," added Stone.

"The final version will thus still not take any of their concerns into account."

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