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What legal Canadian weed might mean to Lesotho

Adam Houston and Rapelang Radebe

BY multiple measures, the Kingdom of Lesotho is one of the highest countries in the world.

For one, the mountainous African nation never drops below 1,400 metres, meaning its lowermost point is at a higher elevation than that of any other country.

For another, it has long depended heavily on the production of cannabis; a report published by UNESCO at the turn of the millennium found it was one of the country’s three primary sources of hard currency, alongside foreign aid and remittances from mines in neighbouring South Africa.

Today, despite increased investment in sectors such as mining and hydroelectricity, it remains a core cash crop. This is notwithstanding the fact that cannabis — commonly known as dagga, or as matekoane in the local Sesotho language — remains illegal.

Changes are afoot, however, that could potentially yield mutually beneficial dividends for Canada, another country whose approach to marijuana is rapidly evolving.

Lesotho updated its drug laws in 2008, in part “to ensure the availability of certain drugs for exclusive medical, scientific and related purposes.”

And earlier this year, Lesotho issued what is reputedly Africa’s first licence for medical marijuana production. While the resulting licence is restrictive, it marks a step toward capitalizing on an established product in a country where more than 40 per cent of people live on less than $1.25 a day.

The fact that its primary trading partner, South Africa, is also loosening restrictions on the drug could hasten the process of reform; after all, previous estimates have suggested Lesotho already accounts for 70 per cent of the South African supply.

It is no surprise South Africa is the major customer; Lesotho is completely surrounded by its neighbour, rising up like an island in the South African sea. During the apartheid years, this isle of Black rule attracted considerable foreign attention, including significant Canadian aid. Today, however, Lesotho attracts little notice outside the region, even during times of political turmoil.

Herein lies opportunity. Although Canadians may seem uncharacteristically immodest when extolling the merits of “B.C. bud,” a trip to the liquor store will quickly illustrate their cosmopolitan tastes, extending beyond what’s produced locally.

The two countries already have a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding promoting Lesotho’s access to the Canadian market as one of the world’s Least Developed Countries. In 2014, Canada imported $5.9 million worth of goods from Lesotho, the vast majority clothing and textiles. By comparison, the year before, Canada imported $47.8 million worth of South African wine. If Canadians acquire a similar taste for Lesotho dagga, it could be a massive boon to Lesotho’s economic development.

In Lesotho, cannabis is often a cash crop grown by subsistence farmers alongside food crops produced for personal consumption; the resulting revenue frequently provides for familial needs such as children’s school fees. Expanding the legal export market could support thousands of farmers, allowing them to continue using their long-established skills while helping bring them out of the shadows and ensuring maximum returns to producers and their families rather than the criminal networks that currently reap much of the profit upon resale abroad.

While Canada itself is still working through the details of shifting its own production to the legal market, its experiences, including the occasional stumble, could offer guidance in the future on issues from regulation to compliance with international treaties.

Similarly, Canada’s private sector already has extensive experience working with farmers in low-income countries to sell coffee, sugar and other goods on mutually beneficial terms; fair-trade marijuana seems a logical next step. It’s true such plans may still be premature in these earliest days of a legal market for Lesotho cannabis. It would benefit both countries, however, for Canada to keep an eye on this budding opportunity.–ottawacitizen

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