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The many moods of sweet Mary Jane

A decade or so ago, the South African artist William Kentridge was hired to conduct a private tour of the Johannesburg Art Gallery for local banking executives who were celebrating the fact that one of the most English of financial institutions had purchased a controlling stake in their money house. 

After the hours-long bespoke tour — where the globally acclaimed artist had patiently analysed and interpreted the works from a profound perspective — he turned to the gaggle and scolded them as one would uninterested schoolchildren. 

The France-based South African artist Karl Gietl recalled that “Bill” was irritated by the giggles and whispers during his commentary and brusquely told the one-percenters: “We are going again. And this time listen. And maybe learn.”

The uneasy symbiotic relationship between the artist and the financial elite’s desire to adorn its walls with wealth echoes eerily in the emerging global cannabis industry, and the strange post-prohibition bedfellows that the corporate class and the marijuana underground make.

Uneasy relationship

This Faustian pact is a legacy of the US’s 1937 Marihuana Act (sic), which bump-started the world’s near-wholesale cannabis prohibition, including severe to absolute limitations on scientific and medical research. The diktat ensured marijuana’s knowledge store became the realm of the underground.

Cultivating decent outdoor homegrown recreational weed with at least 15% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels is not a plug-and-play event. 

Cultivating any gendered plant species is replete with complexities, nuance and the opaque. In the recreational and medical cannabis universe all males are generally trash and the female reigns supreme. 

Remaining chaste, she secretes, among other cannabinoids, THC, which induces a gentle euphoria morphing to relaxation to provoke society’s disproportionate horror of a substance with no medical record of a fatal overdose in its thousands of years of use.

Her ideal soil moisture is a Goldilocks zone — not too wet and not too dry. She’s a siren for pests, fungus, police and thieves. Her more than 50 macro- and micronutrient needs are satisfied by thousands of biological hacks, from molasses, Epsom salts to kelp and batshit, all the while holding her in a slightly acidic growing medium to achieve her meaning. 

The incessant foliage-trimming and daily inspections for spider mites and their ilk, scanning for early signs of systemic disease and nutrient deficiencies, is the preserve of the beguiled, blurring the line between horticulturist and disciple. 

Licensed indoor export-grade medical marijuana, as well as other high-value derivatives, has a higher bar of prerequisites.

Personal protective equipment use is obligatory, as it was pre-pandemic, to protect her from us. Certified organic production, genetic histories, cataloguing shedded and trimmed leaves, photo-sanitary proofs documenting an up to five-month life span is the toll for privileged access to a billion-dollar global industry that is yet far from reaching its high water mark.

Industry players and government agencies forecast that within three years South Africa’s cannabis formal and informal market could be worth R28-billion, romping ahead of the annual citrus sector’s returns, while sharing its mantle as a major forex earner, but using a fraction of the hectarage. 

But jumping through the regulatory hoops to crack the hard-currency export markets is unforgiving. Every barcoded batch is subjected to a battery of third-party testing for purity and process, which risks the junking of consignments for traces of fungicides, insecticides and other contaminants — or typos — in a red-tape daisy chain.

Since Lesotho’s 2017 licensing of medical marijuana and other cannabis products, the government has issued about 240 licences and a handful of growers are mastering production for international markets.

“Five of them are operational. It’s not throwing seeds around. There’s a science and technology behind it. The proper way of doing it,” 48-year-old cannabis entrepreneur Cornel van der Watt says.

A corporate foreign legion is camped in Lesotho from “the Americans, Germans, Canadians and Israelis. Everybody is here to take advantage of clean air, clean water and lower costs,” he says from his Stellenbosch offices, which spill onto the landlord’s “pick-your-own” strawberry field side hustle.

Medigrow Africa, a network of legal African cannabis growers, handed Van der Watt a R30-million budget and 18-month deadline to pioneer Lesotho’s fledgling cannabis sector and create the country’s first export-quality production facility. “We can produce at a third of the price” of the North Americans and Europeans, he says.  

The working environment is a nontoxic, non-hazardous, capital- and labour-intensive business employing 149 staff, from compost makers to laboratory technicians and chemists within an enclosed half-hectare site.

Lessons from the underground 

Skipping South Africa to escape whites-only conscription during apartheid’s twilight zone, Van der Watt worked in California’s illegal marijuana plantations, which have notched up 29 years in the trade to date without getting a criminal record, in the early 1990s.

“I have been there with the guerrilla growers hiding out from the black ops and the helicopters spraying [defoliant] and now we have joined hands pretty much with that side [corporates and governments],” Van der Watt says. “It’s difficult.” 

The underground’s novel medical use of marijuana seeped into polite society to spark the piecemeal peeling-back of prohibition laws in the 1990s before Uruguay’s 2013 “big bang” broke the spell. 

Former president José “Pepe” Mujica recognised prohibition as a contender for the 20th century’s Bigly of Big Lies Award, albeit among a crowded field, and forced through legalisation that went against the influential Catholic Church’s opposing morality tales.

Recognised as a master grower, Van der Watt’s insights shifted to the benefits of the legal cannabis market and his domicile became governed by medical and recreational marijuana legalisation. 

“I was in Colorado when it happened. I was in California when it happened. I was in Canada when it happened and I was in Lesotho when it happened. And now I am in South Africa.”

South Africa’s Constitutional Court deadline compelling the government to relax cannabis prohibition laws for marijuana’s private use — and an opportunity for root and branch reform for an exploding global industry — lapsed on 18 September 2020. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government’s attempt to comply with the ruling was akin to loosening the buckle on a straitjacket, and was roundly rejected by the industry’s unconsulted stakeholders. 

The liberation government appears tentative to end a prohibition that was championed in the US in the 1930s by US narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger, who became the country’s inaugural antidrug czar and who cited among marijuana’s grave consequences the worry that “white women [would] seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” 

Overregulation “kills the market” and has collapsed Canada’s medical marijuana market, Van der Watt argues. He says in that country, one first needs a doctor’s appointment for a prescription, which is premised on ownership of a valid annual medical card. “Then you pay a heavy premium for it at the pharmacy. Or you can go to a recreational [marijuana] store with your normal ID and buy exactly the same product for half the price. So what are you going to do?”

High on the ‘money tree’ 

The corporate class’s enthusiasm for the commodity is its “money tree” aura that also exposes the fault lines in the partnership between corporate and underground marijuana traders, and their contrasting business practices. 

The underground, says Van der Watt, “teaches you to walk with integrity. You cannot owe anybody a single cent, or done anything to anybody, because you will get taken out or locked up.” 

But the corporatisation of the drug means production is a far cry from rolling a simple spliff. 

An imported R18-million super fluid-extractor first separates the aromatic terpenes (unsaturated hydrocarbons), feeding the vape and e-cigarette industries’ appetites for organic flavours ranging from lemon, berry, mint and pine, and then the fatty lipid molecules that are demanded by the cosmetic industry for lip balms and moisturiser creams. 

The distillate at 90% percent purity is “a golden thick viscosity like a syrup. It runs slowly like honey and that’s perfect for the medical market, edibles, chocolates, lollipops,  ice cream or whatever it is,” Van der Watt says. 

At 99.6% purity “it is odourless and tasteless and becomes an isolate, and where you see the beauty of it. As an isolate it changes its form to become water-soluble. You can put it into anything. Beer, wine, eye drops, [medical] patches, anything. That is why there is a big market for isolates,” explains Van der Watt.

Export-grade cannabis isolates and distillates fetch prices of up to R90 000 per litre.

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Guy Oliver
Guy Oliver is a Cape Town-based photo-journalist. He smokes assorted cigarettes

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