Drug smuggler  lives the dream

Drug smuggler lives the dream

MASERU – A former drug smuggler is bringing a decades-old dream to life. Long before it became fashionable, Ntsu Mokhehle, the founder of the Basutoland Congress Party (BCP) had seen value in cannabis. Mokhehle, who founded the BCP in 1952, spent half his adult life shouting his party’s slogan, Ea khutla naha le matekoane a eona (the land is coming back together with its cannabis).

Nineteen years after he was buried at the St Agnes ACL Mission cemetery in Teya-Teyaneng, Lesotho is looking at cannabis as the Holy Grail after the country became the first African country to legalise cannabis farming for medicinal purposes.

In March this year, Lesotho shipped its first cannabis exports since legalisation in September last year.
Bokang Matsipa, director of Medi Kingdom Holdings, which grows and tests cannabis for medicinal purposes, views the herb as crucial to the country’s economic growth.
Canada and some states of the United States have opened the markets for Lesotho’s medicinal cannabis.

“In my opinion, cannabis will soon be more valuable than diamonds and through it alone Lesotho can end poverty,” Matsipa says.
Zimbabwe became the only other African country to legalise marijuana farming for medicinal purposes this year. As the trailblazers, Lesotho is set to reap a huge windfall, says Matsipa.
“Many more people will be trained and learn the technical aspects of medicinal cannabis so that they join hands with international companies that are already in the in the trade,” he says.
“I foresee Lesotho as a country defeating joblessness and poverty when we have settled and learned the trade, not just how to grow and handle the crop,” he says.

“At present we are still learning and we have not yet started trading. The time is coming when our main export will be cannabis.”
Currently Lesotho’s main export is textile followed by water and diamonds.
Matsipa describes himself as a high school dropout because of poverty in his family in Qacha’s Nek, one of the totally rural and mountainous districts of Lesotho.

He started smuggling the weed from Lesotho to neighbouring countries, especially South Africa, in 1989 until 2013 when he sat down to conduct a serious study of cannabis.
“My life as a youth and as an adult has always circulated around cannabis,” he says, adding: “I know that there is life in cannabis.”
He is strongly opposing “the idea that cannabis trade should be given little regulations like it is a grocery business with wide open doors for everybody”.
“We need stringent regulations in this industry because it should be handled with care,” he says.

He agrees with the policy imposed by Health Minister Nkaku Kabi that in order to obtain a trading licence for cannabis, one has to pay M500 000 and have not less than M40 million in his bank account.
“This kind of business is expensive and therefore one has to budget for it. For example, we have spent over M20 million in researches and testing of seeds,” he says.
“We must treat this industry in the same way the diamond industry is being treated if we want to see any growth.”
He argues that when he was still a smuggler he only saw cannabis as a recreational shrub that could be smoked by the user to get high.
“Basotho were taught to under-grade cannabis because they did not know any other use except smoking and getting high. To them it is just a drug that can be smuggled in exchange for money, guns or livestock.”
“Now that we have a chance of making thorough researches on it and see other means of making money with clean consciences we have to handle it with care.”
Matsipa says there is dire need to attract foreign direct investment in the cannabis industry and bring experts from all over the world to help as it is done in the diamond industry.
“It is because there are too many things involved in the diamond mining, which we do not have and that require a lot of capital investment. It is therefore understandable that it is not everybody in the country fighting to have a mining licence.”

“Why should we fight to have mining licences in the cannabis business, which equally requires a lot of capital and expertise?”
Matsipa says he has observed that different regions of the country give different results when dagga is tested because of varying climates in each region.
“Even the testing of soil requires expertise which we do not have in the country. This is a new challenge for us as a country. Even the water we use for irrigation has to be tested and cleaned of all chemicals – something we do not have as Basotho,” he says.

Health Minister Kabi said Basotho’s outcry is that the conditions and money required to start the business make them shrink back.
He however said it is with good intentions that the conditions are stringent – to save the industry from collapsing even before it starts.
“The other reason for most of us not being able to trade with dagga is that the seed that is used, is from the foreign countries,” he added.

“In Lesotho we do not have such suitable cannabis seeds. The one we have has not been found suitable as yet. We do not know if they will qualify in the long run.”
A proportional representative MP for the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), Teboho Sekata who is also from Semonkong where marijuana is illegally rampantly farmed, says it is good if the government has seen that dagga can help Basotho to live.

He said that is what the BCP founder Ntsu Mokhehle was promising when he said ea khutla naha le matekoane a eona.
“Although it looks good, the problem is that this is not for the benefit of Basotho especially when it comes to the amount of money which is needed to enter into this business,” Sekata says.
“They do not give this nation the opportunity to own this business, they are very unfair to these poor people,” he says.

“Who has such lot of money in the country, unless those MPs and a few elites have peculiar interests in this business?”
“This shows that we will still work with the people from abroad, we will have to bring them here because they have money and we do not have.”
Sekata accuses the government of not having interests in seeing a lot of Basotho benefitting directly from the cannabis industry.

“We will not be surprised if some of the ministers come with companies from China and get the business as they did with the issue of wool,” he says.
A self-claimed dagga smuggler, Potsane Kotsoana, says he will not dance to the music of the government if the music does not suit him.

“If the government says we have to have this lot of money for us to trade that means they do not mind about the nation because we will not be able to have that money,” Kotsoana says.
“Only the ministers and MPs will be able to trade. This means the government is not considering us because as poor as we are we will not afford it,” he says.
“We do not want the foreign companies to come here and plant dagga, we will plant it and they will have to buy it from us.”

Thooe Ramolibeli

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