2nd Republic unlocks potential of medicinal cannabis
Sifelani Tsiko, Harare Bureau
A TOTAL of 63 health professionals have been granted scholarships worth US$50 000 to study and conduct research on medicinal cannabis for possible drug development for various ailments that affect Zimbabweans.
This comes as the Second Republic, led by President Mnangagwa, lifted barriers to cannabis research, and allowed the production of industrial hemp for medical and scientific purposes.
In April 2018, Zimbabwe became the second African country to legalise industrial cannabis, courtesy of the numerous economic reforms spearheaded by the new administration.
What is industrial hemp?
A botanical class of cannabis sativa cultivators, industrial hemp is a plant grown specifically for medicinal use. It is fast-growing and understood to appropriate carbon from the earth and replenish overused soils. Moreover, industrial cannabis does not require harmful pesticides and herbicides, which is a plus for the environment as compared to other cash crops.
Studies have shown that the plant absorbs and locks up carbon twice as much as trees, with a hectare of hemp believed to absorb between eight and 22 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year in comparison to any forest.
It is used in the production of plastics, food, cosmetics, textiles and construction materials, in addition to being a raw material for the manufacture of industrial and medicinal hemp.
Researchers note that products like plastics and other non-woven materials made from the plant are sustainable and recyclable. As such, they do not accumulate and deteriorate as a wasteland but rather decompose faster than other products.
Background: Potential for Africa
Scientists have encountered administrative and legal hurdles to growing pharmaceutical grade cannabis for decades. Although cannabis is still illegal in most African countries, it has been grown on the continent since time immemorial.
A number of African countries, including Zimbabwe, have taken steps to decriminalise cannabis by adopting legislation to tap into the opportunities that exist in this multi-billion dollar industry.
Some of the African countries that have legalised the growing of industrial cannabis include Ghana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Morocco, Rwanda, Malawi, South Africa, and Zambia. Other global top producers are China, Italy, France and the Netherlands.
Lesotho was the first African nation to legalise medical cannabis in 2017, followed by South Africa’s functional legalisation of adult use in 2018. Zimbabwe became the second country in Africa after Lesotho to legalise the production of cannabis for medicinal and scientific purposes in 2018.
Cannabis has sparked sharp interest and discussion across the continent where there is a growing interest to harness the plant for various medicinal and industrial purposes.
New Frontier Data estimates that Africa’s overall market accounts for 11 percent of the total global cannabis market, with US$37,3 billion in combined legal and illegal sales out of the total US$344,4 billion worldwide.
A well-regulated industrial hemp industry in Africa has potential to stimulate economic growth and create jobs across the entire continent, a new report has revealed.
According to the latest New Frontier Data report titled: “The Africa Regional Hemp and Cannabis Report: 2019 Industry Outlook,” the continent could create over 320 000 jobs in states with legal, regulated markets.
The report was released to coincide with the InterCannAlliance symposium, which was held in the resort town of Victoria Falls from May 24-25, 2019.
Experts who met at the symposium urged African countries to fast-track the approval of regulatory mechanisms to tap into an industry estimated at US$344,4 billion as at 2018.
“The jobs created are distributed in several sectors and while the precise share of jobs to be created in each sector will vary between US markets and African markets, it is worth noting that job creation has the potential to span multiple sectors,” the report says.
Researchers say the number and diversity of jobs stimulated by a legal cannabis industry could well cut across and support multi-sectoral economic development efforts.
“The number and diversity of jobs stimulated by a legal cannabis industry are measures of how the industry can support multi-sectoral economic development efforts,” says the report.
In addition, the report notes that there could be increased opportunities to expand into other applications and sectors as scientific research and technological innovation advance the plant’s industrial, medicinal, and nutritional applications.
“Furthermore, there, over time, will be increased opportunities to expand into other applications and sectors, as scientific research and technological innovation advance the plant’s industrial, medicinal, and nutritional applications.”
Giadha Aguirre de Carcer, founder and head of New Frontier Data, says:
“It is also important to note that cannabis, and the industries surrounding the plant, could help achieve several of the United Nation’s current Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including those of highest priority to African citizens.
“In fact, many of the low-tech, low-cost, accessible applications of industrial hemp, in particular, could be activated relatively quickly to improve health standards across the continent, as well as to begin increasing national GDPs in support of stronger global economies in the years to come.”
The report is quite detailed and provides policymakers and analysts with a well-rounded, objective, fact-based overview of Africa’s emerging cannabis market trends, dynamics, opportunities, and challenges.
New Frontier Data believes strongly that the report is useful to those making policy and regulatory decisions, and advancing research around cannabis’ medical and industrial applications.
The global cannabis industry is expected to grow from US$28 billion in 2021 to US$197 billion by 2028.
Vision on industrial hemp production
As has been highlighted earlier on, in April 2018, Zimbabwe became the second African country to legalise medicinal cannabis, courtesy of the numerous economic reforms spearheaded by President Mnangagwa’s new administration.
Zimbabwe’s wide-ranging economic reforms under the mantra: “Zimbabwe is open for business,” seek to modernise the economy, expand agricultural infrastructure, address healthcare spending, reduce dependence on food imports, and increase agricultural export opportunities.
To demonstrate its commitment, in March 2019, the Government issued its first licence to Precision Cannabis Therapeutics Zimbabwe, at a cost of US$46 000.
Founder and head of the Zimbabwe Industrial Hemp Trust, Dr Zorodzai Maroveke, pointed out then, that the hemp industry was a boon to economical equity and balance, which could not be taken for granted any longer.
In May last year, the President commissioned a medicinal cannabis farm and processing plant in Mount Hampden, about 20 kilometres north-west of Harare, set up by Swiss Bioceuticals Limited.
The Swiss Bioceuticals farm, worth US$27 million, was built with a state-of-the-art hemp processing plant fitted with the first line of medicinal cannabis oil processing aimed at stimulating other bio-medicinal solutions and pharmaceutical products for both local and international markets.
Investment in the processing plant, which adds significant value to the crop, testified to the success of President Mnangagwa’s engagement policy and the confidence Swiss companies and investors had in Zimbabwe and its economy.
“This milestone is a testimony of the successes of my Government’s engagement and re-engagement policy. It further demonstrates the confidence that Swiss companies have in our economy through their continued investment in Zimbabwe.
“I extend my profound congratulations to the Swiss Bioceuticals Limited for this timely investment in the medicinal cannabis farm, processing plant and value chain, worth US$27 million,” the President said.
While praising the investors for the speedy execution of operations from the time the firm got its operating licence, President Mnangagwa also urged other financiers with permits and licences to quickly operationalise them for the benefit of the economy, in general, and the people of Zimbabwe, in particular.
The Government has issued two licences for the cultivation of medicinal cannabis in the country and up to 57 for export purposes only.
The Ministry of Health and Child Care and the Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe (MCAZ) are the authorities that grant permits for cannabis production and beneficiation.
To date, the Ministry of Health and Child Care has issued more than 60 medicinal cannabis licences and the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development has issued more than 25 hemp permits.
Over the past four years, Zimbabwe has recorded remarkable progress towards hemp production inspired by the slant towards agricultural profitability and rural industrialisation as enshrined in Vision 2030.
Laws have been amended to remove industrial hemp from the list of dangerous drugs, hence demarcating the line between medicinal cannabis and marijuana (mbanje).
“We want to separate industrial cannabis from the ordinary cannabis (mbanje), and we have put it in legislation that is being championed by the Ministry of Health and Child Care,” President Mnangagwa said in August 2018 at the sixth annual Agribusiness Conference at the Exhibition Park in Harare.
“Wherever in the world where it has been allowed, there are strongest conditions for it to be grown. Under the Statutory Instrument, we are regulating how it should be grown. It must have maximum security. That is why the security sector should be involved,” he added.
Zimbabwe issues licences for a five-year term that can be renewed at the rate of US$20 000 for the standard licensing fee and US$2 500 to renew the research part.
The Agricultural Marketing Authority (AMA), in line with Statutory Instrument 218 of 2020, has registered 96 industrial hemp players — 18 researchers, 49 cultivators and 29 merchants.
Zimbabwe Industrial Hemp Trust was the first organisation to cultivate industrial cannabis in 2019 at Harare Central Remand Prison.
Deriving benefits: the scholarships
The fact that 63 health professionals were granted scholarships worth US$50 000 to research on industrial hemp for possible drug development for various ailments affecting Zimbabweans is a testament to President Mnangagwa’s commitment to sustainable healthcare.
Dr Zorodzai Maroveke, head of Zimbabwe Industrial Hemp Trust, told The Herald recently that her organisation had partnered New Avakash to advance the education, research and development of health and medical practitioners to accelerate understanding of the plant’s health effects and possible therapies for treating conditions — chronic pain, the side effects of chemotherapy, diabetes, cancer, glaucoma, HIV and Aids and other chronic illnesses.
“To start bridging the huge knowledge and information gap of cannabis as a medicine in Africa, NewAvakash International provided US$50 000 for 100 Zimbabwean health professionals to study an online programme on endocannabinology provided by the International College of Cannabinoid Medicines based in Australia. This will create their foundation for clinical research,” Dr Maroveke said.
“This scholarship was acknowledged and supported by the Government through the Ministry of Health and Child Care in September 2022. The selection process took some time, and at least 60 professionals qualified.”
She indicated that the Government has issued more than 60 licences for industrial cannabis production.
“The Government has issued licences to grow cannabis for export purposes, but we can also explore ways to harness it as an alternative medicine. There is a huge market for this, and we have a potential to tap into it,” said Dr Maroveke.
“It’s a capital-intensive industry that also requires high technical expertise. By providing scholarships, we can speed up the process to commercialise cannabis production.”
National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Director Professor Nicholas Midzi hailed New Avakash International and ZIHT for rolling out scholarships to local health practitioners, saying it will help provide solutions to health problems that affect Zimbabweans.
“We believe there are opportunities to improve healthcare delivery from use of traditional plants and herbs, such as cannabis, to deal with prevalent diseases like diabetes, cancer, glaucoma, HIV and Aids, pain management and other chronic illnesses that are affecting our society today,” Prof Midzi said.
“This initiative aligns with the thrust of the Government in the National Development Strategy 1 to achieve a vibrant, efficient and modern health sector by 2030.”
New Avakash country manager, Stanley Muengwa, said the provision of scholarships would help to promote the understanding of medicinal cannabis and open pathways for beneficiation.