Marijuana buds are being grown indoors in this image, which shows the warm lights needed to cultivate cannabis. Picture: 123RF/ ERIC LIMON
Marijuana buds are being grown indoors in this image, which shows the warm lights needed to cultivate cannabis. Picture: 123RF/ ERIC LIMON

Almost all the businesses in SA cashing in on the growing demand for medical marijuana are breaking the law, despite their newfound confidence in the wake of the Constitutional Court ruling in 2018 which permits the personal use of cannabis in private, SA’s medicines regulator and the police warned on Monday.

The size of the SA medical cannabis market is unknown. However, local businesses are aiming for a slice of the global cannabis market, worth about $150bn (R2.2-trillion), according to the Green Fund. The rapidly growing market could surge to $272bn by 2028, according to Barclays projections.

Products containing cannabidiol (CBD) oil are particularly popular, which its advocates claim has an array of benefits, ranging from pain relief to staving off heart disease.

CBD, which is not psychoactive, is one of the key components of cannabis, and is the active ingredient in Epidiolex, a medicine that was recently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat epilepsy.

The other key ingredient in cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which has psychoactive properties, and provides the "high" sought by recreational users.

The SA Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) and the SA Police Service (Saps) issued a joint statement on Monday warning that using cannabis in public remains illegal, and that dealing in cannabis remains a serious offence in terms of the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act.

They warned members of the public not to purchase illegal cannabis franchises sold by businesses claiming to be operating legally under the Traditional Health Practitioners Act.

The act’s definition of traditional medicine does not create a mechanism to legally sell cannabis or cannabis-related products, unless they are exempted from the Medicines and Related Substances Act, they said in the statement.

The Medicines Act requires any product that makes a medicinal claim to be registered with Sahpra before it can be marketed or sold in SA.

However, a 12-month exclusion notice published by the health minister in May has exempted products with low concentrations of CBD and THC from these rules, provided they are marketed without making specific health claims.

Products containing less than 20mg of CBD per day are currently exempted from the requirements, as well as processed products that contain naturally occurring concentrations of CBD and THC below 0.0075% and 0.001%, respectively.

Sahpra’s head of names and scheduling, Momeena Omarjee, warned consumers that purchasing unregistered medicines carries risks, as there is no official guarantee of their safety or even their efficacy.

She said only one cannabis medicine — containing dronabinol — has been registered with Sahpra, and it is not currently marketed in SA. There are no pending applications for cannabis-containing medicines, Omarjee said.

Section 21 of the Medicines Act permits patients to import cannabis-containing medicines that have been approved by regulatory authorities in other countries. A total of 31 applications have been approved so far in 2019, she said.

Sahpra has to date received 95 licence applications for the cultivation of medical cannabis. Half of these applicants have been inspected by the regulator, but only five have made the grade so far, Omarjee said.

No licences have been issued or approved for the manufacturing of medical cannabis products in SA, she said.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za