By ‘Majirata Latela
After being hailed as the ultimate magic bullet that would breath much-needed life into Lesotho’s promising economy, the cannabis industry has lived up to initial concerns that the country is the perfect place to grow the herb but not to regulate it.
The Mountain Kingdom became the first nation in Africa to issue licenses for the production of medicinal cannabis in 2017. International investment quickly followed in 2018. The plant would be for export to companies around the world, where it was to be processed into cannabis products.
Some of the world’s biggest cannabis companies listed on the Canadian and New York stock exchanges invested in this fledgling industry, forming partnerships worth millions of dollars with local companies. The country’s high altitude and abundant water—accessible through the dam system—make it an ideal environment in which to grow.
Fast forward to 2020, complains are heard from every corner that the cannabis business started on the wrong footing. Acquisition of the licenses has raised eyebrows in the past and the Ministry of Health was also warned by King Letsie III last year, about corruption that might become a threat to the industry.
“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,” the King said in 2019.
The King added that due to the corruption that was reported to be happening in the issuing of licences, people are losing interest and confidence in the system and pointed out that 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 licence holder, Teboho Mohlomi who acquired a licence to start operating in the cannabis industry revealed to theReporter that he has decided to give up on the cannabis industry following a long struggle to secure investors as they complain that the industry is not well regulated.
He also shows that with the absence of a narcotics board, everything seems to be falling apart since there was no one regulating the industry. In other words, the industry is a free for all because the narcotics board was dissolved in December last year.
“We have since complained that the ministry of health should now allow many people to get licences so that it could be easier for them to regulate people who obtained them, but the ministry kept on issuing more licences. After obtaining a licence with M540 000 and renewing it twice for M370 000, I am now forced to leave the business.
“It is sad for me to leave the business which I thought was going to be a legacy for my kids after spending so much money, but I have no choice but to leave it, Mohlomi said.
He says he has heard that there are other people who are also exiting the industry after failing to get investors. Others have even resorted to selling their licences to recoup their money.
However, the ministry of health’s legal officer, ‘Masello Sello says once someone acquires a license, they cannot sell it; the only thing they can do is sell the business under which they applied for the licence.
In spite of the reported mass exodus, things are looking up for others like Hemp Africa’s Mohlomi Moleko who indicates that, notwithstanding the Covid-19 restrictions, they have been able to export their produce to Israel.
He says even though the absence of a Nacotics board poses a challenge to the industry in terms of regulation, Hemp Africa has been able to beat the challenges with the help of the some of the old Narcotics Secretariat members.
He also advised people not to get out of the business but look for ways to improve the business; he said people should also be on the look-out for investors who come with ulterior motives of prising the business away from license owners.
“Just because we do not have money to set up proper production sites, foreign investors seem to want more shares because they are the ones that come with more money and technical expertise; some of them do not just take the majority shareholding, they actually eject you out of the business without even you realising it.
“I still believe there are investors out there with good intentions that can help Lesotho to grow its economy, but one just needs to be very careful not to enter into business with people who will spoil the industry,” Moleko said.
Following the ushering in of a new government which saw Motlatsi Maqelepo replacing Nkaku Kabi as minister of health, the new minister says he is currently doing his own investigations into the issuance of licences as it is already clear that there were some corrupt practices in the issuing of the licenses.
“I have been told that the issuance of licences happened in two different offices and I have asked the offices to give me copies of the licenses so that we can conduct a reconciliation and know the number of licences that have been issued.
“We also need to do some due diligence of how the licences were given and whether the right procedures were followed in their issuance. Most of the people who will renew the licences will be interrogated so that we can get to the bottom of things like whether they met the conditions for receiving the licenses,” Maqelepo said.
He added that it has been a month that they inaugurated the new Lesotho Narcotics Bureau following the dismantling of the Narcotics Secretariat which was alleged to have been riddled with largescale corruption and malpractices.
“We admit that we have failed the industry with the delay of the formation of a regulatory body and we are aware that the industry is far ahead of the ministry and the board; we have to work hard to make sure that we get to the same level as the industry.
“Despite the laws and regulations being there, a regulatory body is necessary to help grow the industry. We need such a body to function properly and enforce the law and principles to ensure success of the business.
“I still have a strong feeling that if we comply with the Drug of Abuse Act of 2008, Lesotho will be an example to other countries on how best to go about the industry,” he said.
According to sections 59 of the Drug of Abuse Act 2008, the Bureau shall (a) advice the Minister on policy development and implementation in regard to illicit drugs and drug trafficking; (c) co-ordinate training in relation to drugs of abuse for relevant Government Ministries, Departments and NGO’s with the aim of updating knowledge, improving techniques of interdictions and detections of drugs and many others which some licence holders feel that the Ministry has failed them.