Uganda is projected to become the next cannabis hotshot of the African continent. Foreign capital has been flowing in to launch the new industry. So, much hangs in the balance as the country’s cabinet weighs changes to the criminal code allowing cultivation to proceed.
There appears to be a tension between the lure of a lucrative new agro-export sector and a conservative political culture in a traditionally authoritarian country.
The government is now in the process of reviewing colonial-era laws that prohibit production of cannabis. The license for Together Pharma, a major player in the Israeli cannabis industry, has reportedly been “suspended” (not cancelled) following demands for legal clarity from other cabinet ministers. Especially named is the state minister for Finance & Investment, Evelyn Anite.
In the west of the country, along the shores of Lake Dweru,Israeli company Together Pharma awaits approval to start planting. The operation was licensed by the State Agriculture Ministry and cleared by the Uganda Investments Authority to cultivate for the international medical marijuana market.
Agriculture Minister Christopher Kibazanga, who granted the licenses, struck a cautious tone on the sidelines of a meeting of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA) last week. “It is important for us to have clarity on what we want to achieve from this venture, instead of doing things haphazardly and turn the whole country upside down,” he said.
Progress and Backlash
Uganda’s government is said to be weighing 20 bids from companies and individuals seeking clearance to cultivate and export medical marijuana. The African Exponent calls it a “cannabis scramble” in the East African nation.
But there is more than a whiff of reefer madness to the Exponent’s quote from Health Minister Sarah Opendi. “Marijuana growing without proper control measures can be dangerous to our youthful population,” she said. “Already it is the second highest cause for the Butabika hospital admissions majority of whom are youth.” Butabika is the capital Kampala’s main psychiatric institute. The notion that psychiatric episodes are being “caused” by cannabis is almost certainly based on flawed assumptions.
Agriculture Minister Kibazanga remains bullish on cannabis, even while clearly feeling the need to appease the conservatives. “The crop is among the most valuable on the international markets because of it being medicinal plant, but as government we are worried some Ugandans may end up being drug dealers. That is why we need strong regulations, which the top government decision-makers are in the process of coming up with.
Seed Stock Imported
A report last month said that the while the cabinet debates, the Uganda Revenue Authority has approved the importation of 2,000 kilograms of cannabis seed by eager would-be cultivators. Varieties imported from seed banks in the Netherlands and Sri Lanka are said to include Desfrán, Durban Poison, Frisian Dew, Mazar, Power Plant, Shaman, and the CBD-heavy Charlotte’s Angel
Kibanzanga said the seed importers have expressed frustration over the delays. This he said at the ASERECA conference: “We are aware that investors are becoming impatient and they have a right to do so. Some of them are investors from Israel, United States of America, Canada and others are from research institutions, all writing to me over the matter — growing of marijuana.”
The recent flurry of media attention to the question of legality in Uganda is testimony to investor impatience, and may prompt the cabinet to finally submit changes to the country’s parliament amending the current law. Kibazanga claimed authority for granting the licenses under provisions of the 2015 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act 2015, but conservative cabinet members say this conflicts with a 1902 law put in place by British colonial administrators and never formally overturned.
Africa’s Fourth Legal Producer
If the legal logjam does break, Uganda will be the fourth country on the African continent to permit cannabis cultivation to one degree or another. At the forefront is the small and landlocked mountain kingdom of Lesotho, which is aggressively embracing commercial cannabis production as a ticket out of poverty and under-development.
Lesotho is surrounded on all sides by regional giant South Africa, which now allows personal cultivation following a favorable court ruling last year. South Africa’s farmers, especially small black farmers who have been hit hard by globalization, have launched an initiative to allow commercial cannabis cultivation as well.
A less likely candidate is traditionally authoritarian Zimbabwe, which last year legalized medical marijuana cultivation by order of the Health Ministry.
Uganda seems an unlikely candidate as well. The country’s harsh anti-gay laws have especially drawn criticism from international human rights groups. But the process is in the works, with pressure growing daily on the cabinet to give the go-ahead for eager cultivators to break ground.
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