From the mid-1920s until 2017, cannabis was illegal in Africa at a continental scale. Colonial powers imposed legal restrictions on indigenous peoples despite those peoples’ extensive use of the plant for healing and other purposes. Over time, as African countries gained independence, their governments maintained and even doubled down on prohibiting cannabis. Why they did that then is intensely complex; why they’re undoing it now (in part) is comparatively more straightforward.

Head researched the momentum that the cannabis legalization movement is generating across Africa. We discovered intriguing circumstances surrounding the legalization movements in nine countries: Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Ghana, Lesotho, Malawi, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. South Africa’s first step toward legalizing cannabis was driven by civil rights, but all nine countries seem to be motivated foremost by money.

The worldwide cannabis market is expected to reach $60.79 billion in 2024 and expand to $102.9 billion by 2028, according to Statista. Fortune Business Insights expects that market to reach $444.34 billion by 2030. In the nine countries we studied, the rates of unemployment and/or working poverty (i.e., having a job that pays too little to bring you up to the poverty level) tend to be alarmingly high. These already-dire living conditions are typically worsened by the crime that goes with unregulated cannabis trafficking, too. So, there is a ripple effect of quality-of-life and standard-of-living upgrades with cannabis legalization. The incentives go well beyond potential revenues.

Ah, but if only it were as easy as simply decreeing cannabis legal! Nope. Of course not. Although these nine countries have made commendable progress toward giving back to the people what colonizers took a century ago, each country faces unique obstacles to further progress. Check out what they’re dealing with in these parts of the Cradle of Civilization.

Photo via Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 Deed

Photo via Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 Deed

African countries are breaking from a continent-wide historic opposition to cannabis to position themselves for entry into the international legal cannabis market.

Eswatini (Swaziland)

Eswatini flag and map from Wikimedia Commons.

A Nation in Need of Cannabis Cash. Named Swaziland until April 2018, Eswatini (sometimes written “eSwatini”) has a population of around 1.2 million. In that, nearly 1 in 4  (2022 data) people are unemployed, and about 1 in 5 (2023 data) of the people who do have jobs don’t make enough to reach the International Labour Organization’s poverty level. Those jobs typically fall into three industries: textiles, sugar processing and agriculture. The third of these includes the citrusy sweet, fast-acting cannabis strain Swazi Gold.

Cannabis Farming the Most Lucrative Career Path. Although it’s illegal (promising up to 15 years in prison and a $16,000+ fine) to use, possess or sell cannabis in Eswatini, that’s not stopping citizens or foreign sojourners from enjoying Swazi Gold. In fact, that strain is so well known throughout southern Africa that Eswatini has cannabis tourism. Between hosting tourists and selling cannabis to dealers in neighboring South Africa, cannabis farmers are financially well-to-do. Interestingly, most are elderly and raising grandchildren orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.

Swazi Gold Photo by Smokethis at seedfinder.eu | CC BY-NC-SA

Swazi Gold Photo by Smokethis at seedfinder.eu | CC BY-NC-SA

Farmers Spied On and Raided. Although these farmers have found a way to keep their families from starving, they face danger constantly. According to an interview with a cannabis farmer in a 2021 article in The Guardian, the Eswatini king uses networks of spies in local communities. Police who catch the farmers burn their crops or steal their harvested weed. And even if the farmers can avoid domestic persecution, they’re still vulnerable to robbery and rape when crossing the border to sell weed to South African dealers.

Legalization to Benefit the Rich and Hurt the Poor. Even with everything they face while cannabis remains illegal, the farmers strongly oppose ongoing efforts in the royal government to legalize cannabis cultivation. If the proposed bills are passed into law, being a law-abiding cannabis farmer will require obtaining a license that costs more than $50,000, on penalty of heavy fines. Thus, those too poor to afford a license will actually be even worse off, as the harassment in place will become a greater financial burden – on top of having well-resourced competition. The Eswatini Cannabis Association has proposed a structure to incorporate into the pending legislation that will ensure equal representation among cannabis stakeholders (farmers, healers, etc.). Sadly, the association has no political power, and its members could be imprisoned simply for challenging the king. What will happen remains to be seen.

Ghana

Ghana flag and map from Wikimedia Commons.

New Year, Newly Legal Cannabis. In Ghana, the unemployment rate is at an economically healthy 3.9% (2022 data), but the working poverty rate is 18% (2023 data). However, owing to the December 2023 passage of a bill legalizing cannabis with 0.3% or less delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (i.e., hemp) for medical and industrial purposes, that could drop. Government-issued licenses will cover all cannabis-related activities: cultivation, processing, distribution, sale, importing and exporting.

An Economic Powerhouse in Waiting. According to Africanews, the legalization of hemp has the potential to remedy all of Ghana’s economic issues because cannabis can flourish in every part of the country. The projected revenue in Ghana’s cannabis market for 2024, according to Statista, is $122.6 million; by 2028, that will jump to $209.9 million. The new law will enable the development of hemp-derived textiles, construction materials and wellness products, among other things. A study published in the Journal of Cannabis Research speculated that Ghana could eventually lead the African hemp industry.

Photo of Hemp Fabric by Barsha Paudel via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed

Photo of Hemp Fabric by Barsha Paudel via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed

In It for More Than Money. The bill’s objectives, according to the Hemp Association of Ghana, are to promote industry and environmental cleanup initiatives, generate new revenue by taxing cannabis cultivation and exporting, and explore medicinal applications. The aforementioned Journal of Cannabis Research study concluded that Ghana’s potential ascension as a hemp leader will do more than drive economic growth; it will foster sustainable development, too.

Things to Keep an Eye On. Challenges that Ghana’s fledgling hemp industry will face include pest management, the lack of a regulatory framework and inadequate infrastructure. Other hemp newcomers have solved these problems by working with international standards organizations, establishing public-private partnerships and offering tax incentives and financial aid to get the industry moving. In the process, however, caution must be taken to include small farms so that corporations don’t drive them out of business.

Lesotho

   Lesotho flag and map from Wikimedia Commons.

Setting a Continent-Wide Precedent. In 2017, Lesotho became the first country in Africa whose government granted a license to cultivate cannabis for medical and scientific purposes. The highly coveted Lesotho Gold cannabis strain has long been an international delicacy among weed consumers, but the new law won’t be of any benefit to recreational consumers. It’s still illegal to grow cannabis for personal use. Even so, this country’s forward-thinking culture permits a degree of optimism not present elsewhere among the continent’s governments.

A Tough Life for the Little Guys. Unemployment in Lesotho is forecast to reach 22.77% in 2024, and 1 in 4 (2023 data) employed people will make less than the poverty level. Although the country’s cannabis market will pull in $135 million in revenue in 2024, those benefitting from the industry boom are only the elites and multinational corporations. Cannabis cultivation license fees range from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. Also, many rural farmers were duped when accepting a lump sum from corporations buying their land. The money was great then, but left them without their once-regular income source. Since 2017, politicians have been promising to make the market more accessible to remedy such unintended consequences. To date, however, not one politician has done more than make promises.

Malawi

Malawi flag and map from Wikimedia Commons.

Mike Tyson as Its Brand Ambassador. In 2020, Malawi legalized the cultivation, processing, and exportation of cannabis for medicinal and industrial purposes. The following year, it asked former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson to be the official ambassador for Malawi cannabis. The director of Malawi’s civil society group the Centre for Public Accountability (CPA) shunned the request owing to Tyson’s rape conviction and prison time in the 1990s, stating, “The CPA is failing to comprehend why Malawi would want to have a convicted rapist as its brand ambassador, more especially at this time, when efforts to curb violence against women are part of the government agenda.” Malawi’s minister of agriculture defended the decision, noting that Tyson was freed on parole for good behavior and had committed no additional offenses. Tyson, already a businessman in the cannabis industry with Tyson 2.0, accepted the offer.

Photo of Mike Tyson by Glenn Francis via Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed

Photo of Mike Tyson by Glenn Francis via Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed

Missing Out on International Revenue Streams. Even with a famous – albeit controversial – brand ambassador and access to three cannabis industries (medical, scientific and industrial), Malawi can only pull in so much money while excluding recreational cannabis. The astonishing reach of Malawi Gold cannabis was explained thoroughly in Lydia Kariuki’s January 2024 update on the country’s weed industry:

“International organized groups actively engage Malawians to facilitate the purchase and production of cannabis from local growers. Primarily, the transportation of cannabis from Malawi occurs through the borders of Mozambique and Zimbabwe, reaching South Africa. Consequently, the popularity of Malawian cannabis has spurred an increase in marijuana tourism in both Malawi and South Africa, attracting holidaymakers in search of cannabis experiences. More recently, the reach of Malawian cannabis has extended to markets in Kenya, Tanzania, and several other locations. Notably, Malawi Gold, the country’s renowned cannabis strain, has even made its way to the Netherlands, highlighting its international presence.”

Imagine how much Malawi could benefit from even a small percentage of that action!

Not Good Enough to Help the Average Citizen. The country’s cannabis market is expected to have revenues of  $74.4 million in 2024, and up to $142.6 million by 2028. Unemployment is expected to be around 6.78% in 2024, but 2 in 3 (2023 data) employed people will be below the poverty level. So, a cash influx is critical to Malawi for the average citizen. Besides, the license fee to grow cannabis is $10,000, making compliance cost-prohibitive for the average farmer. Until cannabis regulation is restructured to remove that barrier to entry, nearly 72% of Malawians will be living on less than $2.15 a day.

Morocco 

   Morocco flag and map (only undisputed) from Wikimedia Commons.

On the Backburner for Years. In June 2021, Morocco’s parliament legalized cannabis production for medical, cosmetic and industrial purposes. Then, it did nothing to implement the law. Nearly a year later, the government announced which areas of the country would be allowed to grow cannabis legally once the law was implemented. Then, once more, the parliament did nothing to implement the law – until autumn 2022. Delays have been attributed to a virtual policy freeze shortly before and after the country’s 2021 parliamentary elections. Compounding that was 2021 geopolitical turbulence: a prolonged standoff over the status of Western Sahara; crises with Spain and Germany; and the breaking off of diplomatic relations with Algeria.

A Race Against Crime. The areas chosen by the government for legal cannabis cultivation are hotspots for poverty and organized crime. This isn’t surprising, given that the government said that its motivation to legalize cannabis was to crack down on drug trafficking. Even less surprising is the government’s resolve in keeping recreational cannabis illegal; society at large is rather preoccupied with cannabis abuse. Thus, despite being one of the world’s largest cannabis producers, and despite ranking 15 among the top 20 countries with the highest weed consumption, Morocco isn’t looking to establish a hash bar haven anytime soon.

Desperation and Optimism for 2024. Although the government had valid reasons for dragging its feet in implementing the 2021 law, Moroccans expected – and needed – movement on that law. The working poverty rate is only 0.4% (2023 data), but unemployment will be at 11.68% in 2024. The 10 licenses that were finally issued to cannabis cultivators in late 2022 for the industrial and medical uses, including exporting, of cannabis will deliver desperately needed jobs in construction, farming, sales and more. Statista estimates that Morocco’s cannabis market could earn over $23 million in revenues in 2024.

Nigeria

Nigeria flag and map from Wikimedia Commons.

For Now, It’s “No.” To say that cannabis is illegal in Nigeria is an understatement. According to Part I, Section 2 (1), in the country’s Indian Hemp Act, merely planting cannabis is punishable by death or 21 years (minimum) in prison. Nevertheless, some members of the Nigerian House of Representatives are seeking to legalize the cultivation, sale and use of cannabis for commercial purposes. (Pretty ballsy!)

No Small Victories. Two members of the House sponsored a bill introduced in the first quarter of 2023 to amend Nigeria’s National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) Act. The amendment would allow the NDLEA to issue cannabis licenses to Nigerians. This was actually the bill’s second reading, following its first submittal in 2020. The language in that, only slightly different, proposed legalizing the cultivation and trading of cannabis for medical and cosmetic use, research purposes and revenue generation. If the bill is passed into law, doctors will be allowed to prescribe cannabis, and pharmacies and stores will be allowed to sell it. For now, cannabis advocates are left holding their breath for the next developments among legislators.

Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey … Smoke Weed Every Day. Not the least bit deterred by the shocking punishments awaiting them if they get caught, many Nigerians love weed. In fact, Nigeria is the third-largest consumer of marijuana in the world, the plant grows on its own all throughout the country, and Nigeria 420 Day is celebrated annually on the down-low. Those doing the growing and selling (way under the radar) are often college graduates, benefitting from the high prices on the illicit market specifically because it’s illicit. An international team of researchers who are experts in Nigerian drug policies interviewed said educated cannabis farmers and discovered:

“[C]annabis farming and trade offered socioeconomic benefits. For many, cannabis had become the main source of income, fetching far more than traditional crops, such as cocoa. These benefits, which need to be seen in the context of widespread poverty, unemployment and income precarity, were the main reason they engaged in these activities.”

Wow! Nigeria has a self-sustaining natural resource that generates more wealth than even cocoa does. Given that, Nigerian politicians hell-bent on keeping the devil’s lettuce 100% illegal might want to reconsider whether it’s worth perpetuating poverty.

South Africa

    South Africa flag and map from Wikimedia Commons.

Right to Privacy = Right to Smoke Pot. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, a 2018 court ruling in South Africa determined that the prohibition of cannabis violated the right to privacy. Consequently, the Constitutional Court legalized medical cannabis and also decriminalized the personal use and cultivation of cannabis (in limited amounts) for private consumption by adults. As part of this, people previously convicted of cannabis-related offenses  (possession, use or “dealing based on presumption”) had their criminal records expunged.

Bring Your Own Bud. South Africa hasn’t legalized retail sales of cannabis, so you have to grow your own. You’re limited to having four plants, not to exceed 600 grams of cannabis per person (maximum 1,200 grams per household) in private or 100 grams in public. Commercial cultivation exists too, but it requires expensive licenses and is subject to an extensive regulatory framework.

Photo of a Backyard Cannabis Garden by Pavel Ševela, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of a Backyard Cannabis Garden by Pavel Ševela, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

So Much Green. The revenue in South Africa’s recreational cannabis market is forecast to reach $789.1 million in 2024, rising to nearly $1.3 billion by 2028. Studies referenced in South African news outlet BusinessTech showed that medicinal cannabis can contribute roughly $5.29 million annually to the country’s economy, along with 100,000 jobs.

Zambia

Zambia flag and map from Wikimedia Commons.

Very Rich Markets. In Zambia, cannabis is legal only for medicinal purposes and exporting, and recreational cannabis is strictly prohibited. (A person can be sentenced to up to a decade in prison if caught in possession of a bong – not even weed, just a bong!) The medical side of the cannabis market alone in that country is expected to reach $5.77 million in 2024 and $9.37 million by 2028. Overall, Zambia’s cannabis market should reach $85.33 million in 2024 and $146.6 million by 2028. Given that over half (56.1%, 2023 data) of the country’s employed citizens are living below the poverty level, one hopes that those revenues will find their way to the average Zambian.

Very Expensive Obedience. A commercial license for cannabis cultivation and sales in Zambia costs $250,000 a year, and you have to compete for the privilege of holding a license – every three years. In 2019, the government budged on its zero-tolerance policy toward cannabis to profit from what it labels a “dangerous drug” to address the country’s fiscal deficit (7.3% of GDP in 2024) and growing debt (over 104% of GDP, 2022 data) burden. In 2020, the country was actually defaulting, as reported by the Financial Times. As the country continues to scramble for investors while fending off creditors, even as Africa’s second-largest copper producer, the “dangerous drug” is changing into its superhero costume to save Zambia from financial peril.

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe flag and map from Wikimedia Commons.

Medicine, Science and Money. Since 2018, the cultivation of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes has been legal in Zimbabwe. The therapeutic cannabis market there is expected to achieve a revenue of $151.9 million in 2024 and $242.5 million by 2028. More broadly, the country’s cannabis market is set to reach $155.6 million in 2024 and $247.8 million by 2028.

Pay to Play. The government issues licenses for production, processing and exporting, and the fees for these range from $5,000 to $50,000. With one-third of the country’s employed people living below the poverty level, it’s clear that those fees aren’t meant to be paid by the average farmer. Most in possession of the licenses are established agribusinesses and large-scale commercial farmers who can invest. Here’s to hoping that someone in government will boldly stand as their advocate!

Conclusion

A lot is going on throughout Africa to get financial mileage out of cannabis, even as the angelic plant remains largely demonized in legislation. Changes are afoot, and many more will follow. Keep your eyes on the Cradle of Civilization as ever more civilizations embrace the irrepressible value of cannabis.

Kathleen Hearons is a writer, editor, linguist and voice over actor from Los Angeles. She specializes in creative writing and research-intensive analysis and reporting.  

 

 

 

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