JOHANNESBURG - It's the new green “gold rush” and the early adopters are going to laugh all the way to the bank. And then some.
But while home-growers, entrepreneurs and nurseries might be scrambling to grow their own cannabis for recreational purposes, those wanting to produce marijuana for medical purposes are treading cautiously.
Such producers are also not chasing the CBD (cannabidoil) craze for oils, edibles and cosmetics - they're producing for science-based medicine.
Only three medical cannabis licences have been issued so far - and the latest regulatory approval has been given to a farmer from Upington in the Northern Cape.
Johannes van der Colff, the chief executive of Leaf Botanicals, is already a leading exporter of organic grapes, raisins and pecan nuts.
And now, the veteran farmer - who has exported produce for more than 40 years - plans to export medical grade cannabis.
His farm, 10km outside the town on the banks of the Orange River, has a raisin packing factory with production capacity of 12 000 tons.
His family already packs and markets about 22percent of the country's entire raisin production: 95percent of it is exported.
The farm supplies Woolworths, Cadburys and Chipkins.
Leaf Botanicals has just been awarded a licence from the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) to cultivate medical cannabis for export purposes.
Leaf plans to cultivate a variety of high-quality organic medical cannabis strains.
As a certified organic farmer, Van der Colff believes it’s possible to grow superior products without the use of chemicals or pesticides.
He says his company, Leaf Botanicals, has been working closely with Sahpra to create a fully compliant facility that conforms to strict South African and international standards and regulations.
Leaf Botanicals has also signed a strategic agreement with Agrotiva, a fully licensed cannabis producer in Canada which is approved by Health Canada. This allows Leaf access to the Canadian medical cannabis market and gives additional export opportunities locally.
Van der Colff says the capital investment was huge. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much this whole thing cost. We started the process five years ago, when it was legalised in parts of the US.
“At the time, we could already apply for growing licences for medical cannabis in South Africa. So we applied about three years ago. We brought in experts from North America - none of this has come cheaply. But we believe in the product and in the opportunities.”
While the Constitutional Court ruling liberalised cultivation and consumption for private usage, medical cannabis consumption and production pre-dates that landmark judgment.
Leaf aren't putting anything into the ground just yet, Van der Colff says, until he has the physical licence in his hands.
“I think the South African government is approaching this issue (of relaxing legislation) correctly - they're not rushing into it,” he says.
“I am also cautious: I won't plant until I have that actual licence in my hands. But it's coming - and we're ready.”
Van der Colff says he believes they got into the market at the right time, but a lot of it was down to luck.
Ahead of the curve, Canada might be their focus, but they're committed to South Africa.
“If anything is needed locally for research, we will supply the domestic market. We have a responsibility to our country and the future.”