In this Oct. 4, 2016 photo, farmworkers remove stems and leaves from newly-harvested marijuana plants, at Los Suenos Farms, America's largest legal open air marijuana farm, in Avondale, southern Colo. For the fall 2016 harvest, the farm's 36-acres are expected to yield 5 to 6 tons. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
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    Written by: Meshack Masibo

    What is the first thing that comes into your mind when you think about Marijuana? Maybe it’s a picture of some young person acting weirdly or one of someone in prison bars because of being found in possession of it. This is true of the situation in Kenya but not so of the situation in the beautiful South African state of Lesotho.
    Lesotho is aiming to make money from the medicinal marijuana industry, although prevented by an unheralded illicit trade in the drug for recreational use. 70 kiilometres north-east of the capital, Maseru, arable land lies in a lush valley surrounded by the mountains that the country is well known for. It is in this breath-taking scenery that people have been illicitly growing marijuana for recreational use for decades.
    The high altitude combined with fertile soils, untainted by pesticides, enables growers to produce a high-quality crop, valued all over the world. Closer to the capital, ranks of workers operate in more laboratory-like conditions in greenhouses to produce legal medicinal marijuana, as the country tries to cash in on its booming demand.
    Last year, Lesotho became the first African country to legalise the cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes, spawning a new sector in a country where the economy struggles to create employment opportunities. But these two worlds are unlikely to meet, as the small-scale farmer cannot afford the infrastructure and licensing costs that the legal trade requires.
    The new medicinal marijuana industry is set to dwarf the money that the illicit small-scale farmers earn. Medigrow, a company already involved in the trade employs about 400 people and hopes to expand in the country.” We want to export finished products. So the plan is to cultivate and manufacture pharmaceutical products, nutritional products, cosmetics, and extraction of active pharmaceutical ingredients,” says Masello Sello, legal adviser at the health ministry, the department responsible for issuing licences.
    Lesotho’s entry into the medicinal marijuana market has encouraged other countries to get involved. Zimbabwe has also legalised its cultivation and a number of other African governments are considering it as well. In South Africa, the Constitutional Court legalised the growing and smoking of marijuana for personal consumption in a landmark ruling earlier this year.
    The government of Lesotho has already granted a number of international companies licences to grow, distribute and to export marijuana-based products. The country has managed to attract Canadian investors, who have found the climate and low labour costs ideal for expanding their businesses. This year, the Toronto-based Supreme Cannabis Company invested $10m into Medigrow Lesotho, giving it a 10% share of the business. Medigrow’s sprawling medicinal marijuana farm, in Maseru’s Makarabei district, brings the hope of job opportunities to the impoverished local community.
    ‘Greenhouses dot the mountainside, and the rumble of tractors and pneumatic drills reverberate as the plant nears completion.
    “We are already employing 400 people, and we are projected to increase our head count to about 3,000 people,” says Medigrow Chief Operating Officer Lebo Liphotho.
    CBD oil is essentially what all medicinal marijuana farmers are after. This is the compound which is extracted from the plant and then used in medicines to treat a variety of conditions. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is what recreational users of marijuana are after as it is the psychoactive ingredient. All of the plants at the Medigrow farm have had THC bred out of them, Christo Moller, a grower at the facility says. Medigrow was granted permission by the Lesotho government to begin cultivation in 2016, a year before the state legalised medicinal marijuana for all companies. In just 15 months it has made a lot of progress: it has built a road, set up communication towers and is currently applying the finishing touches to staff quarters and the CBD oil processing plant.
    But what about small-holder farmers?
    Small scale farmers were excited about potentially expanding their businesses through growing medicinal marijuana on his farm. But the $10,000 growing licence has put him off the idea. The government has broken down marijuana licences into different categories ranging from the main operating license, to growing, research and transportation. But these licenses are too expensive for the ordinary farmer.
    Globally, medicinal marijuana is big business. The market for legal marijuana is set to be worth $146bn (£114bn) a year by 2025 with medicinal marijuana set to make up more than two-thirds of that, according to consultants Grand View Research. As the first mover on the continent, Lesotho aims to capitalise on its green bounty by encouraging international investment not only in cultivation but also processing. This makes me wonder whether Kenya should not also take advantage the lucrative industry. Considering the need for more avenues of income for the country, it would be prudent for the government to legalize the growing and production of Marijuana for medicinal purposes.
    Our Kenyan lands have proved to be arable enough to host the crop and it’s potential as an income earner is very great. Provided that there are adequate regulations to ensure that it is only used for medicinal purposes, it would be a very welcome change for the Kenyan economy. Greenhouses and mega farms would provide avenues for employment for the huge population of unemployed youth in the country. Exports of Medicinal marijuana extracts would greatly help to level the export-import imbalance for Kenya.

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