HENNOPS, South Africa (AP) — Stacks of bright green cannabis plants, freshly harvested from nearby hothouses, are expertly sorted on a lab table by workers wearing hygienic gloves and caps who snip the leaves and buds and put them in bins for further processing.

Druid’s Garden in
Hennops, about 20 miles north of Johannesburg, is a licensed farm which
conducts research, legally produces cannabis and other traditional
medicinal products for sale in South Africa and international markets.

The farm’s founder, Cian McClelland, said one of his aims is to help smaller-scale, black farmers enter South Africa’s potentially lucrative marijuana market.

“One of the most important aspects of this
industry is for us to find ways to uplift small farmers, particularly
black rural farmers,” said McClelland. “We would like to play an active
role around the country, in partnership with the Heritage Trust, to help
… provide access to these markets.”

McClelland knows that rural
black farmers, who have grown marijuana traditionally but illegally,
are now fighting to benefit from the country’s relaxation of cannabis

Following the Constitutional Court’s decision in 2018 to
decriminalize the personal use and cultivation of cannabis, South
Africa’s cannabis industry could be worth more than $23 billion by 2023,
according to a recent report by data collection agency Prohibition

However, there are concerns on the ground that black
farmers who have been working for decades in what has been an illegal
industry may miss out on the potential boom.

Many smaller growers cannot afford to get the licenses needed to grow marijuana for medicinal and research purposes.

stringent requirements include getting police clearances, registering a
specified plot size, erecting high-tech security fencing, getting
irrigation systems and setting up agreements with overseas buyers, among
others. The cost of establishing a legal marijuana farm is estimated to
be $200,000 to $350,000, according to a South African agricultural
publication, Landbouweekblad.

The new marijuana industry could
soon be controlled by big pharmaceutical companies, cutting out
long-time growers, say agricultural experts.

Some successful black
farmers like Itumeleng Tau are working to train emerging farmers to
grow and process cannabis up to the standards required to obtain
medicinal permits.

“If an ordinary farmer in the homelands (rural
areas) is being required to have two hectares (5 acres) of land or one
hectare (2.5 acres), fully fenced, while they have been farming when it
was un-fenced and nobody was stealing it, it is quite impractical,” said

Moleboheng Semela, a cannabis activist and general secretary
of the Cannabis Development Council, is among those fighting to get
licenses for those who had previously grown and sold cannabis illegally.

Her organization helps emerging farmers to obtain permits to cultivate cannabis and produce medicinal products.

have those communities that have been involved in the cannabis industry
before the court ruling, but we have seen that our government is more
focused on the (producers of) pharmaceuticals,” said Semela.

South Africa’s cannabis industry is growing so quickly that marijuana conventions are popping up across the country.

recent cannabis expo held in Johannesburg’s posh Sandton Convention
Center attracted hundreds of marijuana activists, farmers, growers and
exhibitors from across the world. The expo grew from 58 exhibitor stands
last year to more than 200 stands this year, according to expo director
Silas Howard.

“It just goes to show how big and how fast this industry has grown,” said Howard.

African president Cyril Ramaphosa recently touted the country’s
cannabis industry as an important sector in the country’s fight against

“We note that the cultivation of cannabis … can
play an important role in uplifting the poorest regions in the country,”
Ramaphosa told a community meeting in the rural town of Lusikisiki in
the Eastern Cape province in September last year. The province is among
the areas in South Africa where cannabis has been grown by many
subsistence farmers for generations, despite laws against it. The
Eastern Cape’s provincial government last year sent a delegation to
Canada to research cannabis cultivation and product development.

South African law enforcement agencies remain resolute in arresting
those producing without permits. In November, police arrested three
people for operating a hydroponic lab in Brits, outside the capital
Pretoria, confiscating more than $200,000 worth of cannabis.

investigation aims to clamp down on the unlawful mushrooming of cannabis
dispensaries around the country,” said police spokesman Captain
Tlangelani Rikhotso.

At Druid’s Garden, Cian McClelland, said the bar does not necessarily have to be so high for new entrants.

“Going for a full pharmaceutical license is very expensive and out of reach of most rural people,” he said. “So what we are advocating for is to use our center as a training facility, to bring people from rural communities and teach them low-tech models that are within their means to be able to go back into their communities and implement relatively easily.”

By Mogomotsi Magome

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