HEALTH Minister Nkaku Kabi has vowed to revoke all cannabis licences that are not operational by the end of this month. This as Lesotho grapples with complying with stringent regulations of the Vienna, Austria, based International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which forbid countries to keep inoperational licences, lest they be used for illegal purposes.
Lesotho is the first African country to legalise the commercial cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes since 2017. It remains the only African country with an INCB quota to export cannabis oil for medicinal purposes. No country is allowed to move cannabis products outside its borders without the authority and quota from the INCB. South Africa has for instance issued its four initial licences for cannabis production but its output can only be used within that country as it does not yet have an INCB quota to export to other countries. The INCB requires all countries that it has allocated production and export quotas to comply by its stringent rules of monitoring and evaluating licencees to ensure they are not producing for illegal purposes. That’s what Minister Kabi, who spent time quite a bit of time at the INCB last month, is now trying to do.
All companies who had been given licences 12 months ago and who had not operationalized them would have them revoked on 31 October 2019. All those who had failed to renew their licences timeously would also have them automatically revoked, Mr Kabi told the media upon his return from Vienna last week.
Mr Kabi noted with concern that of all the licences he had issued, only five had started operations.
He also noted with concern the proliferation of fake licences on the market saying they tended to confuse legitimate investors. The Minister said his ministry was improving the template for the licences to make it harder for anyone to fake them. Holders of fake licences were in any event hapless as they would not be allowed to set up operations but only sought to sell these to unsuspecting investors. The Ministry of Health would maintain stringent processes of monitoring licencees and their places of operation to give fake licences no wiggle room.
He said he and his delegation had to travel to Austria for a meeting with the INCB after the international body expressed concern over Lesotho’s failure to ensure that all the companies issued with medical cannabis licences commenced operations.
The INCB had quite a number of countries on its waiting list seeking quotas for cannabis that is highly valued for providing relief to patients with various life-threatening medical conditions including cancer, hypertension, diabetes and autism.
“There are some licencees who are just happy to have those licences for speculative purposes and have no serious plans to start operations. We can no longer allow that. We want serious operations on the ground from anyone holding a licence,” Mr Kabi said.
“We cannot have licences without any corresponding work on the ground.
Lesotho’s INCB quota allows the country to have 600 hectares of cannabis under cannabis. Only a minute fraction of that is currently realised.
Messrs Andre Bothma and Sam Matekane of Medigrow and Verve Dynamics respectively, attended the INCB meeting alongside the Minister. Mr Kabi said the two companies attended the meeting because they had begun production and were ready to export cannabis oil.
Mr Kabi said when the growing of medical cannabis was legalised in Lesotho in 2017, many Basotho aggressively sought licences on the mistaken assumption that once they acquired the licences they would suddenly reap rich rewards too fast and too quickly in a very delicate field in which they had no knowledge. He said such people did not have enough money to venture into actual production which required anything upwards of M150 million. Some locals had even sold their houses and other assets to raise money to pay for the licences but would now automatically lose them as they had failed to remit the M350 000 renewal fees.
“I was lenient with them (locals who sought licences) because I wanted Basotho to benefit. I didn’t want it to be a white man’s business and I thought I was meeting Basotho halfway…..But I now have no other option but do what I have to do. Either we start seeing operations on the ground or we revoke the licences….,” Mr Kabi said.
Mr Kabi said his ministry was in talks with the Lesotho Mounted Police Service’s forensic department to weed out the culprits holding and selling fake licences.
“When we first started issuing licenses…we did not have a budget to produce foolproof licences. We printed the licences on A4 paper and we suspect that this created a window of opportunity for people to produce fake licences. The fake licences are creating confusion in the international market as those with them try to scam investors,” the minister said.
He said they were changing the type of licences and would invite those holding legit licences to come to the Ministry to have then replaced with newly formatted ones that would be difficult to forge.
Minister Kabi said he would soon be issuing licences for the production of hemp.
Hemp is a strain of the cannabis species that is grown specifically for industrial uses. It can be used to make ropes, cloth, shoes, paper, bioplastics, insulation and biofuel.