Cannabis, also known as hemp or marijuana, is a genus
of flowering plants in the family Cannabaceae. The plant
is harvested, dried and processed for a variety of uses.
Although the psycho-active compounds are concentrated
in the flowers, there are a large number of other beneficial
compounds occurring in all parts of the plant. In September
2018, the Constitutional Court of South Africa ruled that it
is not a criminal offense for an adult citizen to use, possess
or grow cannabis in private for personal consumption. This
article looks at the plant, its uses, growing conditions and
the legalities surrounding the ruling.
Cannabis plants have evolved over the decades, and every strain has its own specific characteristics such as structure, type of buds, flavour and effects. The plants go through two stages of life – the vegetative stage and the flowering stage; the vegetative life stage is first and once the plant is about six weeks old, it begins to show signs of pre-flowers, indicating its gender before the beginning of the flowering stage. The plant will go into full flower when it is exposed to 12 hours of darkness, or more. When the plants switch to the flowering stage, they basically stop growing larger and taller, and start growing buds or pollen sacs. Only female plants produce buds and growers generally only want to grow female plants.
Male plants produce pollen which is needed for cannabis plants to naturally reproduce; seeds occur when there are male plants in the mix. To make one’s own seeds, male plants are required but when growing regular plants and to harvest flowers, it is recommended to get rid of male plants as soon as possible. The sex of the plant is not visible until it begins to flower. Female plants have flowers that don’t fully close, and they produce small hairs called pistils. The bud of the female plant contains the most THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) – this is the main psycho-active compound of cannabis which produces a “high”. CBD(cannabidiol) does not produce this ‘high’ and is thought to work with other elements in the body linked to feelings of well-being and pain relief.
Hermaphrodite plants contain both male and female flowers. Female plants can become hermaphrodite if stressed by light, pollution, drought, heat and other
factors. Breeders use chemical compounds to stress the plants to produce feminised seed. It is generally not recommended to keep hermaphrodite plants.
The main uses of cannabis are recreational, medicinal and industrial. As a recreational drug, cannabis is enjoyed as joints, pipes, vaporisers, bongs and
hookahs packed with marijuana. Smoking it is said to help people experience things such as music, art, film and literature more intensely, or simply to enjoy food
more. The relaxing and mind-expanding properties of cannabis are widely known, but it should be used responsibly as addiction is possible. Medical cannabis refers to the use of the plant and its constituent cannabinoids to treat disease, improve symptoms or relieve pain. It may be used to reduce nausea during chemotherapy or improve appetite in people with HIV/AIDS. Common side effects of short-term use include dizziness, fatigue, vomiting and hallucinations, but the long-term effects are not clear. In the case of industrial use, the term hemp refers to the durable, soft fibre from the plant stem (stalk). Cannabis sativa cultivars are used for fibres due to their long stems. Hemp can refer to any industrial product that is not intended for use as a drug. For industrial uses, hemp is valuable for commercial products ranging from paper, construction materials, textiles and clothing.
Indoor and outdoor growing: the pros and cons
Outdoor growing is the most natural way to grow, using sunlight and planting directly into the soil. It is however more difficult than growing indoors, as it involves dealing with pests and weather conditions which may hamper growth. Indoor growing is more controlled and allows for a better environment, with the ability to control aspects such as temperature, humidity and ventilation. Indoor grow lights, however, can only mirror natural outdoor light but they can be controlled to allow the plants to flower more often. This results in indoor growers having several harvests per year.
Cannabis requires 12 hours of darkness a day in order to flower; outdoors, this occurs with seasonal change, resulting in only one flowering season per year. High humidity can lead to bud rot and powdery mildew forming on the plant, while temperatures that are too cold can stunt plant growth or sometimes even kill it. Indoor growing is challenging due to the high costs involved.
Pros of outdoor growing: excellent light quality, very cheap to start, plants become larger and produce more yield, easier to allocate space to grow.
Cons of outdoor growing: pests, higher likelihood of mildew, only one harvest a year.
Pros of indoor growing: full environmental control, little to no pest problems, ability to trigger flowering, easier to acquire high quality buds; high THC percentages due to environmental control, can grow throughout the year.
Cons of indoor growing: expensive setup and running costs. It is easier, on the whole, to acquire high quality bud from indoor growing, provided that the right equipment is available.
Because of this, many outdoor growers consider indoor growing too easy, and prefer the challenges of outdoor growing using natural farming methods and specialist pest control in order to create high quality natural buds.
South Africa’s cannabis laws
Following the ruling of the Constitutional Court (CC), parliament was given 24 months from the date of the judgement to bring the ruling in line with South African laws, with a new Bill expected to be released soon, according to Julie Oppenheim, a partner at law firm Bowmans. She says that “one of the few facts we know for sure about cannabis regulation right now is that using or growing it in private for your personal use is your own business.” However, she added that the CC did not define the scope of private, rather leaving this to the discretion of those who enforce the law – the police, prosecutors and the courts. The judgement did, however, expand private use, possession or cultivation of cannabis beyond a home or private dwelling. It also seems (although not explicit from the CC’s judgement), that in addition to the use of cannabis beyond one’s home, it may be permissible to use it together with friends and family – provided that they are consenting and over the age of 18.
The CC did not prescribe the quantity of cannabis that would qualify for personal use. Instead, it gave parliament 24 months from the date of the judgement to incorporate appropriate provisions into the relevant legislation. Until these provisions are made, South Africa’s law enforcement officials have the discretion to decide whether the amount of cannabis in a person’s possession could reasonably be believed to be more that what is necessary for personal use. To assist the police in the exercise of their discretion, the National Commissioner of the SA Police Service (SAPS) has already issued a directive which sets out certain considerations where someone is found in possession of cannabis.
According to the directive, the SAPS official must observe the circumstances and surrounding facts, and question the person implicated, as well as any other person who may be able to assist. If the official is satisfied that the quantity of cannabis is small enough to qualify as personal consumption, the person should not be arrested or charged but rather the amount of cannabis and the reasons for the decision should be recorded. In all cases, police discretion must be exercised in ‘good faith, rationally and not arbitrarily.’
The SAPS has issued a stern warning that the establishment of illegal outlets or dispensaries, online sites and social mediaplatforms which are marketing and selling cannabis and cannabis related products to the public remains illegal – except where specifically allowed in terms of the Medicines and Related Substances Act. There are however, still many grey areas regarding the law and cannabis, and until these have been clarified, Oppenheim outlined the basic legal position as follow:
• grow only as much as necessary for your personal use;
• you may use it for your personal recreational or medicinal use, alone or with friends and family over the age of
18, in spaces not open to groups other than your own;
• other than in the case of specific health supplements and processed hemp fibre, buying and selling cannabis or any cannabis-containing product is presently not legally permissible.
Given the somewhat controversial nature of cannabis, the new laws will have to be airtight and be able to withstand a full public commentary process. Oppenheim says a bill regulating cannabis is soon to be published for public comment, but this has not been officially confirmed and law firm Bowmans has not yet seen any such
A Western Cape greenhouse facility, Felbridge, says that it is waiting for the SA government to catch up to the growing demand for cannabis cultivation in the country. Felbridge is one of four companies that have been granted licences from the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) to cultivate the import and export of cannabis.
The company says it will be using its greenhouse facilities in Stellenbosch for the first plantation, with a plan to ultimately use 5 000 square metres to grow the plants in phases. The commercial licence allows the company to use 14 000 square metres for the crops, while Felbridge’s greenhouse facility covers 46 000 square metres in total.
Felbridge CEO Leslie Zettler said the aim is to produce around 20 tons of dried cannabis, with cultivation taking place in a slightly more isolated space, away from other crops. He highlighted a few challenges companies in South Africa will face for cannabis cultivation, as they wait for government legislation to “catch up”. One problem is around licence restrictions, particularly as the group’s licence is purely for cultivation. The importing of seeds and manufacturing of products to then sell in various forms is still not part of the package.
“Our licence is strictly for cultivation, we’re still waiting for companies to be licenced to manufacture – where they will be able to use our product and turn it into oil, tablets and things like that. I can only grow the product, I can’t sell it to the public, only to another licenced entity – and those licences haven’t been issued yet. Until things open up a bit more, we’re just going to be testing our genetics and ensuring that our strain standards are ready,” he explains.
Pharmaceutical group Afriplex’s partner company, House of Hemp, was granted a cultivation licence by SAHPRA in April2019, setting in process a motion which, it said, will eventually see the standardisation and proper scientific formulation, dosage requirements and combinations of cannabinoids for medical purposes. Industry experts have determined that South Africa could unlock a R107 billion industry by regulating and taxing the cultivation, manufacturing and sale of cannabis products.