Cannabis body in tight corner

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The Parliamentary Social Cluster Committee has vowed to tighten the screws on medical cannabis licensing amid mounting concerns that alleged malpractices and corruption could contaminate and transfigure the country’s new found treasure-trove, with disastrous economic consequences.

Lesotho became the first African country to legalize the cultivation, processing and sale of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes in 2017, signalling government’s intention to grow its cannabis industry into a significant export market, attracting interest from international firms.

The ministry of health is the licensing authority for cannabis businesses, with applicants vetted through the Lesotho Narcotics Control Board.

However, the cost of starting a cannabis business is prohibitive to local residents. Smallholder farmers cannot afford the M450 000 it costs to obtain a single license, providing big international businesses with an advantage in the market. This has opened the industry to abuse and widespread corruption, with powerful people in government being implicated in the manipulation of the process.

The chairperson of the Social Cluster, Moshoeshoe Fako, says the committee has reason to believe that directors of some of the licensed companies are officials holding high and influential government positions and people in the corridors of power.

“We are yet to know the identities of these people. We have requested the board secretariat to furnish us with the list of all license recipients and their directors.

“We have also told them to assemble a new secretariat because the current one is fraught with discrepancies as there are only two officials at the frontline of the cannabis administration; this is strange because they also hold high positions in the ministry,” he said.

The duo are the ministry’s director of pharmaceuticals, Germina Mphoso, and its legal officer, Masello Sello. Earlier this year, media reports alleged that the pair ‘sat on the technical committee of a London-listed company AfriAg Global PLC and were responsible for reviewing potential investments within the medicinal cannabis sector and reporting to the company’s board on a regular basis’.

Fako added that he had to date not been updated on the progress of the overhaul of the secretariat, and that enquiry attempts have not been successful as the concerned officers and the ministry’s principal secretary, Thebe Mokoatle, were said to have travelled to Canada to ‘find cannabis investors’.

“It is so disappointing; how can the entire team decide to go to Canada to look for investors when we already have a commissioner there, this is just a waste of funds.

“We have asked the secretariat to provide evidence of the amount of money that has been collected for cannabis licences. We have established that the money is paid into a designated Post Bank Lesotho account. We have also established that the signatories to the account are ‘M’e Germina Mphoso, the ministry’s director of finance, Mpheteng Tšukulu, and the principal secretary,” said Fako who hinted at the possibility of some licenses fees being diverted.

At the launching of Verve Dynamics Incorporated’s cannabis production and processing plant at Bela Bela in Berea in August, King Letsie III stated that he had heard rumours that the cannabis licensing process was riddled with corruption.

The King, who officiated the event, made an impassioned plea for elimination of corruption in the industry in order for it to have a positive and lasting impact on the lives of Basotho.

 “Minister of health, you now have a big responsibility on your shoulders under our law and the system; it is your ministry that has powers to issue and grant licences. This is a huge responsibility; make sure you use that responsibility and that power well and responsibly for the benefit of this country and its people.

“Make sure that those who are lucky enough to get the licences are capable people and companies that will actually be capable of putting up facilities of this nature. I am talking about this because I have heard whisperings and murmurings in the peripheries which may be wrong, but I have heard that some of the licences are not even worth the paper they are written on,” he said.

The King added that due to the corruption that is happening in the issuing of licences, people are losing interest and confidence in the system and it is the responsibility of the ministry to guard this precious asset and make sure that licences are awarded to proper people who will make the country proud.

One of Verve’s officials Thomas Admas of Canada, added this voice to the concerns around practices in the issuing of licenses.

“When it comes to corruption attached to the licensing, regulations and laws are very important to investors as they bring about trust and ethicalness to the product.

“If there is no ethicalness in the industry, that will tarnish potential revenues; not only the business but the whole industry, and make people lose respect in what they are buying. The product can also be affected as people will not produce quality which may sometimes lead to being harmful.”

A source known to this publication, who is also into cannabis production, previously described the entire cannabis licensing as a ‘sham riddled with irregularities and questionable and illegal practices’, as some of the license holders are not by law permitted to hold them.

The source further complained that the illegal issuing of licences affects the business adversely, as it is beginning to scare away potential investors who are suspicious when licences are issued like hot cakes.

There have been persistent perceptions that health minister Nkaku Kabi is actually powerless when it comes to issuing cannabis licenses, as he only carries out orders from ‘above’, a contrived reference to the Prime Minister. He is said to have no access to the real list of cannabis licensees, which is in the custody of a senior ministry official who ‘guards it with their life’.

However, the minister categorically denied acting on the instruction of the Prime Minster, or the First Lady for that matter, to award cannabis licenses.

“The First Lady would never force herself into my ministry. If she did, then either I or she would stay; she has never meddled with my position and I don’t think she will ever do. I have heard she has been to other ministries but she has never been here.

“The same goes for the Prime Minister; he has never interfered either. I report to him as my superior but he does not tell me who or who not to issue licenses to,” Kabi told this publication a few months ago.

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