/ 20 April 2024

Durban entrepreneur blazes through legal uncertainty in South Africa’s cannabis industry

Kenneth King
Kenneth King. Photo by Des Erasmus

Cannabis entrepreneur Kenneth King has found himself at the intersection of ambition and legal ambiguity as he navigates the burgeoning cannabis industry in South Africa. 

The 25-year-old already has war stories about alleged police, drug lord and municipal “encounters” which belie his age and the three years in which he has been a cannabis store owner.

By his own account, King has lost track of the number of times he has been “engaged” by police for being a cannabis seller.  

“The [older] police are still of the mentality that cannabis is a drug — dagga. And, unfortunately, we can’t stop that,” he told the Mail & Guardian. 

But, said King, there had been improvement in the attitude of officers since the advent of a South African Police Service directive last year that instructed them to  “respect the privacy right of cannabis cultivators and users and to ensure the least intrusive measures are used when securing an accused’s court attendance”. 

The father of two owns five cannabis stores in eThekwini and will soon open a sixth in the upmarket Durban North area — a far cry from the first Canna Kings store he launched in the working-class suburb of Umbilo in late 2021, and still owns. 

His other stores are in Pinetown and the Durban suburbs of Montclair, Glenwood and Hillary. Other illegal substances and alcohol are banned in all the shops.  

Today, King has a staff complement just shy of a dozen and he says business is good. 

Although King is reticent about sharing his monthly turnover, it exceeds the R90 000 personal loan he used to start the business. 

This was after Covid-19 lockdowns “crippled” the e-hailing vehicles he owned. His profit is healthy, he says, but as more competition enters the market, “margins are getting squeezed”.

The first few years were “tough”, he admitted, but “discipline and financial management” allowed for expansion. He is a tax-paying citizen and contributes to UIF, he stressed, proof that although the “gangster” stigma is rife in the industry, above-board cannabis businesses can and do contribute to the economy.

“All of my legal boxes are checked. It’s just the legislation that is holding me back.”

King says his ambition is to open branches throughout South Africa, once legislation is passed and to finally have “the freedom to grow without worry”.

Like thousands of cannabis entrepreneurs countrywide, King uses an assumed “grey area” in legislation that enables him to source supply from across South Africa and sell a variety of cannabis-infused products to anyone over the age of 18 for personal use, be it recreational or medicinal.

Communities in the vicinity of his stores have been open to the concept, he said, and he has been surprised by the demographic of consumers. At his Glenwood and Umbilo stores, most clients are students, but in others, the ages range well into the 50s.

The Cannabis for Private Purposes bill is awaiting the signature of President Cyril Ramaphosa, after being passed earlier this year by the National Council of Provinces, but King deems it “bullshit” and “restrictive”.

“You’re allowed to do this, but you are not allowed to do that. If they legalise this, they must go all the way, not have one foot in and one foot out of the door,” he said.

The bill allows for the growth, possession and consumption of cannabis, but restricts the amount that can be possessed and carried in public. 

It also prohibits the sale of the plant without a licence or a permit. 

The framework for commercialisation has been left for later discussion.

The enabling legislative framework for hemp and cannabis is part of Ramaphosa’s Operation Vulindlela. The president has said the potential multi-billion rand industry could create 130 000 jobs, but movement has been at a snail’s pace as existing policies have to be eased. 

According to King, cannabis should be viewed as the fuel for a new economic revolution.

“I think the government is holding back [on cutting the red tape] because they are trying to figure out how to benefit more from it. 

“But you can’t constrain this,” he said, adding that when the full potential of cannabis is unleashed on the economy, it will bring “exciting changes”.