The African cannabis industry is rapidly emerging, with countries including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and others taking significant steps towards liberalised cannabis regulation. While the rapid expansion of cannabis markets in Africa is not without controversy, many advocates and stakeholders are working to ensure healthy, sustainable and equitable growth that will benefit local stakeholders. Although a handful of countries across the continent are moving into post-prohibition, Namibia – which shares a nearly 1000km long border with South Africa – remains strictly prohibitive. I spoke to activist Angela Prusa about cannabis in Namibia and recent government efforts to suppress cannabis advocacy.
Angela was born in Windhoek, Namibia and grew up in the Kuiseb and in Omaruru, Namibia. She is a mother, activist, artist and NADA acupuncture practitioner focused on developing substance abuse and post-trauma treatment programs for communities in need. Angela is a long-standing cannabis advocate who worked in California cannabis farms for 10 years before travelling to countries around the world learning about the plant’s traditions in different cultures. For the past four years, Angela has been actively advocating for the legalisation of cannabis in Namibia and works towards the protection of indigenous cannabis traditions and unique African plant strains.
Tell me about the current situation with cannabis in Namibia. South Africa’s Constitutional Court recently decided that it is unconstitutional for cannabis to be illegal. Has this created a similar kind of push on cultural protection grounds or on religious protection grounds?
No, actually there has been a big crackdown on cannabis, and not a lot of people know about what’s happening here. Cannabis is very illegal in Namibia, even for CBD but this is somewhat tolerated. We have more and more hemp products coming from South Africa or from Europe that are on the shelves, but our regulations only permit 0.001% of THC and only for topical use. If an individual citizen is found growing hemp, they will be arrested. So South Africa’s regulation hasn’t encouraged our government to take similar steps even though we are seeing some CBD creams and oils on supermarket shelves. That is being tolerated, but mostly the laws are very strict and enforced.
Right now here’s a huge targeting of cannabis cultivators and users by police drug squads and the NDF, Namibia’s army forces. They are working really heavy-handedly, coming in and beating people up, cracking skulls. People have been shot for filming these raids and recording what the police are doing.
Why is there such an aggressive crackdown on cannabis?
As we are becoming more vocal in advocating for cannabis and other countries are relaxing their rules, the drug squad and the police have started getting more and more aggressive and more and more targeting. When people are arrested, other activists get involved and the authorities want to assert their power. They’re trying to scare us into staying quiet. The whole army involvement is illegal and a human rights violation. The name of the anti-cannabis raids is Operation Kalahari Desert and they are attacking civilians as if traditional cannabis use and farming is a national state of emergency. The army raids are large groups of heavily armed soldiers storming people’s homes, often in the middle of the night. They don’t follow any protocol and they don’t regard human rights.
These are old people growing their cannabis to make oil or Rastafari. People growing it for their spiritual use or medicine. It’s shocking, and what’s more, is that the authorities feel justified because it is illegal and don’t care what evidence is out there about its history here.
Another reason why our government is getting so tough on cannabis is that there is an epidemic of people here addicted to Mandrax smoked with cannabis, and there is a lot of confusion between the two substances.
Sorry, can you explain what Mandrax is?
It’s like quaaludes. They were pretty much banned everywhere and production stopped, but the apartheid government in South Africa revived it under a new name with some added ingredient. This doctor Wouter Basson worked for the apartheid government and was basically employed to keep the black people quiet and fight dissent with chemical and drug warfare. All of a sudden in the early eighties, Mandrax was all over the shanty towns and this spilt over the border into Namibia. We are still struggling with a massive Mandrax addiction problem today. It’s really, really addictive, and people smoke it in a pipe with cannabis to make it more potent.
Because of the Mandrax epidemic, people put cannabis in the same category and think: “This evil weed is destroying our communities.” So there’s a gap in education and the fact that our leaders are not even engaging in conversations with people who are studying cannabis is challenging. There’s so much research out there, but they refuse to acknowledge it.
There is hope though. I feel that we are slowly, slowly inching our way forward, more and more people from healthcare positions are understanding that this plant is beneficial. I meet veterinarians, doctors, pharmacists wanting to learn more about cannabis and how it can help.
Is there a history of traditional cannabis in Namibia?
One of the things I’m working on now is recording the history of indigenous communities here who have a cannabis tradition. This is contrary to what some people are saying, especially in the government. It’s really interesting but also sad to see how we had a history and how it’s been severed. Now we are trying to put all these pieces together.
Our traditional indigenous history with this plant includes it being used for spiritual purposes, you know, or by traditional healers. Obviously a lot of the use has been stamped out by criminalization, but we are finding a lot of the recipes. In different pockets of Namibia, there are similar recipes using a powder made from cannabis and other herbs to brew tea for teething children, or for body aches and fever. I’ve seen cannabis used for bronchial and lung illness and asthma, bathing in it to heal sores, so we know there is this history, and I think there’s a general consensus within Africa that we need to start honouring the indigenous knowledge systems and bringing them into the mainstream.
When did this traditional use of cannabis in Namibia become criminalized?
During colonialism, Namibia was colonized by Germany first and foremost and then mandated by South Africa. We adopted South Africa’s constitution and law, including criminal law against cannabis. Even though Namibia became independent in the 90s, these laws were never amended. The evangelical influence has also stigmatized cannabis – people believe it’s this devil’s thing.
What kinds of activities are you and your fellow activists involved in?
In the past year we’ve petitioned and organized some marches, but mostly a lot of advocating and education – that’s the one thing I focus on is education. Surely once we educate not just the citizens, but those in power to understand the potential, and really look at information from the World Health Organization or the UN about rescheduling cannabis then we can really have a conversation about policy. What is the reason for prohibition? What is the research? What is the evidence?
Our justice minister brought out a statement about a month or two ago saying that there’s no reason to legalize cannabis and he listed all these reasons that were totally false and basically pasted from a cursory Google search. This is what’s shocking to me is the fact that if we are going to debate a topic like this, we absolutely must bring experts to the table. There is so much evidence to counter all the arguments that our government has made as to why not legalize cannabis. This is why I am working on establishing the history of cannabis in Namibia.
What do you think a legal cannabis market could do for Namibia?
I think in Namibia we have been really working hard towards creating a unique blueprint for legalization where everyone can benefit. I can see what’s happening internationally and in Africa as the markets start opening up: big foreign companies with millions coming in, getting the licenses so that those at the top make money and those at the bottom and those who are risking their freedoms are still stuck in the same space. This kind of system collapses on itself very quickly.
What is unique in Namibia is that we have such a small population, less than 3 million people, and so much land that we could establish a central hub for small-grow farms to just bring their crops, get them tested for quality or compounds, and put them to market. Like cooperatives and community-led programs where individuals can be an active part of the market.
Another important aspect of legalization is that people use cannabis for their health, even where pharmaceuticals have fallen short. Many Namibians don’t have access to doctors and medications – pharmaceuticals are very expensive and you have to have medical aid (insurance) to go to a doctor and state hospitals lack even the basics. Even if you can afford health care, there are no doctors available, there’s no medicine available and people are suffering.
What is unique in Namibia is that we have such a small population, less than 3 million people, and so much land that we could establish a central hub for small-grow farms to just bring their crops, get them tested for quality or compounds, and put them to market.
The fact that we have something that is affordable and natural can be really beneficial. People have a right to choose their own medications, especially considering the cost and risks involved with prescription drugs like opioids. We have huge numbers of HIV patients here and there is research that’s already come out showing how cannabis can help. I don’t understand why our government is ignoring all this factual, evidence-based research.
Another important part of this is that cannabis is effective in treating addiction, and here in Namibia we have serious problems with addiction: alcohol, crack, cocaine, Mandrax. There are many car accidents directly related to alcohol, and on top of this, there is murder, domestic violence, gender-based violence, and rape. Of course, when a serious crime is reported the police rarely show up – but for a cannabis raid, they come immediately in combat gear to trample through peoples’ homes and break up families. We’ve seen what the war on drugs does, in communities of colour. This must change.
Cannabis will also provide jobs. One of Namibia’s main industries is uranium mining. The mines are a major income, but they also pollute the land, air and water, and poison the miners. Another detrimental industry in Namibia is poaching animals. It would be my hope that legalized cannabis would create a steady income for those currently engaged in poaching pangolins, elephants and rhinos.
An alternative agriculture that is healthier for people and the environment while also contributing to the economy is something that I have been trying to show our government officials and policymakers.
You mentioned that if, if it would be legalized, Namibia could build a new economic blueprint focused on craft production and smaller grows. Ideally, how would you foresee that working if you were going to pitch to the government what industry for cannabis in Namibia would look like?
If I could set up a blueprint for decriminalization and legalization, it would be small scale and built on cooperative farms from individual communities or families, each with 10-20 plants. This conserves water and uses a tradition of growing that rotates between different crops and combines crops for better quality. The yield might be a bit less than if it’s a monocrop with lots of fertilizer and other additives, but I do believe that we could create a market that’s unique to Namibia where we use innovative ways to grow that are not detrimental to the environment or indigenous communities.
It’s really important to incorporate growing food with growing cannabis while also creating an industry bringing new jobs. Another benefit of cannabis is making fibre and using hemp concrete for homes. Many people here live in cardboard boxes and shacks made from corrugated iron. If we can replace those with hempcrete while engaging in this industry in a healthy, environmentally friendly way, that would really benefit Namibians. This plant could really address food and home insecurity – but it would need to build up properly.
I spent 10 years of working on cannabis farms in California with some really amazing people. Small scale growing, honouring the land. When legalization came, everyone just got bought out and that’s a shame. In Africa, we have some unique, special strains. Angola has some incredible strains, I work with farmers in Ghana and other places in Africa – these uniquely African strains should be protected. This is why a blueprint of legalization in Namibia should focus on small, craft cannabis farmers.
I do believe that we could create a market that’s unique to Namibia where we use innovative ways to grow that are not detrimental to the environment or indigenous communities.
My conversation with Angela was enlightening, but painful to hear. The struggle for access to cannabis in Namibia involves so many challenges and will entail many benefits for everyday Namibians – from creating jobs and addressing food and housing scarcity, to addressing addiction and offering alternatives to poaching and mining, cannabis has the potential to improve the lives of so many, yet the authorities are unwilling to consider liberalization. Of course, a legal cannabis industry does have inherent risks. For a region historically mined for natural resources while depriving local communities of the profits of their labour, it is critical that cannabis not become yet another industry that perpetuates inequality and exploitation. Angela’s blueprint for cannabis legalization protects indigenous rights and practices while contributing to the local economy and ecology. It is my deepest hope that the Namibian government consider these recommendations and cease their aggressive enforcement tactics.