Medical cannabis in Africa (1): the green gold of a thousand hills

Rwanda has just legalized the cultivation and export of medical cannabis. However the use of recreational cannabis remains illegal and comes with severe penalties. The strategy for medical cannabis is primarily economic, with the country seeking to position itself in the international green gold market.

On October 12, 2020 in Kigali, under the authority of President Paul Kagame, a Rwandan government meeting validates regulatory guidelines on the cultivation, processing and export of "high-value therapeutic crops". This decision introduces the medical use of cannabis, a medicinal plant whose recreational use remains banned in the country.

The following day, in a press release, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) said it had approved the guidelines providing a framework for investing in the production and processing of medical cannabis for export. The Rwandan institution indicated that a special export levy is envisaged in order to allow the country to reap the considerable resources resulting from the cultivation of cannabis.

These decisions conclude an international tender for the cultivation of medical cannabis in the country. In 2019, the RDB invited companies to bid for the development of "medical cannabis" in Rwanda with an emphasis on exports.

However, the country is not opening the door to consumption. Authorization to produce and distribute what is considered a narcotic is only granted if its use is restricted only to medical and research purposes, in accordance with Rwandan law governing narcotics and psychotropic substances.

The authorities will not compromise on these laws. In Rubavu district, the day before the approval of medical cannabis, three women were arrested for trafficking in local recreational cannabis. They were caught with nearly two thousand granules of cannabis and suspected of being "drug traffickers".

In Rwanda, recreational cannabis use is a problem. In 2018, in a document entitled "Drug consumption as an obstacle to socio-economic development in Rwanda", researcher Gonzague Isirabahenda noted that the consumption of illicit drugs is one of the major challenges for Rwandan youth. "A significant portion of these young people end up becoming dependent, which poses a threat to their own health and safety, while creating difficulties for their families and the general public."

In Rwanda, drug use carries a two-year prison sentence and drug traffickers face between 20 years and life in prison, in addition to a fine of up to $ 30,000. It is therefore clear that consumption in the country remains and will remain illegal and severely punished.

As the Minister of Health, Dr Daniel Ngamije, clarified in an interview on national television, the cultivation of cannabis in Rwanda will be exclusively for export. "Cannabis production will be controlled by strict measures in dedicated areas and farmers will have to have special authorization."

For Rwanda, the strategy is mainly economic. The government sees medical cannabis as an opportunity to reduce its trade deficit and create jobs. The authorities have announced that they have already started discussions with potential investors, mainly targeting the Canadian, American and European markets.

Rwanda intends to take advantage of the growing market for the commercialization of medical cannabis. In May 2019, Grand View Research, a market research database published a study on the potential of the global market for this cannabis strain. Legal marijuana is expected to reach US $ 66.3 billion by the end of 2025, representing a growth of 23.9%. On the African continent, the legalization of the marketing of cannabis could allow the sector to open a market of US $7.1 billion in 2023, according to the firm Prohibition Partners.

By its decision of October 12, Rwanda joins the circle of African countries which have already entered into this market. In 2017, Lesotho was the first to legalize, preceding Zimbabwe, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, Ghana, Swaziland and Malawi. In the Seychelles, the adoption of a regulatory framework is underway with Morocco, Nigeria and Mozambique debating the legalization of the cultivation of medical cannabis.

The expertise in the cultivation of medical cannabis is very advanced in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Central African authorities have just granted the first operating permits and it is therefore very likely that Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills, will in turn be joined by other Central African countries in conquering the market for what Africa recognizes as its green gold.