Policy changes over the past five years have dramatically reshaped the global cannabis market, opening up legal markets for medical cannabis and, increasingly, also for adult, non-medical use. Despite the fact that these shifts look set to bring a clear range of benefits in terms of health and human rights, there is concern over the many for-profit cannabis companies from the Global North that are aggressively competing to capture the licit spaces, squeezing out small and traditional cannabis farmers from the Global South. If the construction of the global cannabis prohibition regime was an historic mistake, then a transition towards a legally regulated market that concentrates profits in a handful of Big Pharma, Ag, Tobacco and Cannabis companies, while locking out small-scale farmers in the Global South, only serves to further this damaging legacy. The focus of Fair Trade cannabis must be to empower small and traditional producers in the cannabis trade, based on a number of first order principles, market strategies and public policies. Crucially, growers must be enabled to organise amongst themselves and forge coalitions with other actors in order to advocate for appropriate frameworks and interventions.
The authors are grateful to the comments provided by two anonymous reviewers whose careful reading of the draft greatly improved the argumentation and detail. Any remaining errors are our own.
United Nations (2019). World Drug Report 2019. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (p. 11).
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has, for example, avoided issuing global production estimates since 2009 given the extreme difficulties in obtaining any kind of reliable data. Country reporting provides some insight. For example, in Kazachstan it is estimated that 140,000 hectares of cannabis (both wild and cultivated) are to be found in the Chui valley, with up to two-thirds of the valley's inhabitants involved in the harvesting of cannabis herb or resin. In Morocco, estimates of the number of people involved in cannabis cultivation vary between 90,000 and 140,000 households. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines it has been reported that up to 40% of the population live of cannabis. For Afghanistan, UNODC's latest cannabis survey estimated the number of cannabis-growing households as around 65,000. For further discussion of some of these figures see: Jelsma, M., Kay, S. and Bewley-Taylor, D. (2019). Fair(er) Trade Options for the Cannabis Market. Policy Report 1, March 2019, Cannabis Innovate (pp. 11-13).
Buxton, J. (2020). Drug control and development: The purposive blind spot. International Development Policy, Geneva: The Graduate Institute (forthcoming).
These survival economies are driven by many complex dynamics. However, amongst them must be included the perverse effects of highly unequal trade and investment agreements that are underpinned by an extractivist logic and centred around the interests of transnational (mostly Northern) capital. These have directly contributed to significant increases in illicit cultivation. For example, the arrival of multinational bauxite companies in Jamaica led to the displacement of small farmers from their lands, triggering an upsurge in cannabis cultivation as well as large-scale out-migration. Meanwhile, the dismantling of the EU-Caribbean preferential trade agreement for bananas in the 1990s essentially wiped out the banana economies of many of the Windward Islands of the Eastern Caribbean. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines alone, the dismantling of this regime led to an 85% decline in the number of banana farmers between 1992 and 2007. Some, if not the majority, were to then find their way into illegal cannabis cultivation as a source of income. In this way, the special burden that the international drug control regime has placed on traditional producing countries in the Global South is replicated in more ways than one.
Clark, C. (2019, 14 October). People feel betrayed: Small-scale dagga growers fear exclusion from legal trade. GroundUp. Retrieved from: https://www.groundup.org.za/article/people-feel-betrayed-small-scale-dagga-growers-fear-exclusion-legal-trade/
We use the term ‘fair(er) trade’ here in recognition of the definitional complexities and contested meanings associated with the terms ‘Fairtrade’, ‘Fair Trade’, ‘Fairly Traded’ and other derivations. Without entering into this debate, we make use of more expansive notions of fair trade, understanding this to signify models that are built around a rights-based, inclusive and environmentally sustainable approach to market engagement, drawing on the high-order principles developed by what might be called the ‘Fair Trade Movement’.
These first order principles first appeared in Jelsma, M., Kay, S. et al (2019).
Good Agricultural Practices involve standards around the use of energy, water and agricultural inputs, and good land management, while Good Manufacturing Practices involve regulations to ensure consistent product quality, avoidance of contamination, traceability and diligent record keeping.
These include cannabis products (in the form of herbal medicines and food supplements) that are used in traditional healing and, more recently, in holistic remedies and complementary treatments. As of yet, they are not recognised under the definition of ‘medical cannabis’, reflecting the preference of international control bodies for ‘pharmaceutical’ preparations over more natural, plant-based medicines, creating additional barriers for export from countries in the South.
The bill - which passed in the House Judiciary Committee in November 2020 - calls for the expungement of certain federal cannabis convictions with expenses being covered by a small excise tax imposed on the legal cannabis industry, as well as the creation of a Cannabis Justice Office focused on reinvesting resources into communities most affected by prohibition. See: https://www.forbes.com/sites/javierhasse/2019/11/20/marijuana-legalization-judiciary-committee/#329f325d2c35
Research on local varieties and traditional breeding techniques would also protect against biopiracy and aggressive patenting under the Convention on Biological Diversity's access and benefit sharing provision, and as further outlined in the Nagoya Protocol. This is particularly relevant as ‘strainhunters’ the world over are continuing to seek out unique, indigenous cannabis varieties for lucrative Western markets, sometimes with little regard to equitable benefit sharing of these and other plant genetic resources. Stronger scientific research, combined with education and awareness raising workshops for farmers, can also help to conserve local cannabis landraces that are disappearing due to the introduction of exogenous varieties that are being pushed due to the higher THC levels. This is the case, for example, in Morocco where local landraces, such as Beldia and Khardala, are vanishing as they are being replaced by more recently introduced European varieties, despite the fact that Moroccan landraces are more eco-friendly to cultivate and are known to have interesting cannabinoid profiles, which make them potentially useful for both medicinal and industrial purposes.
Martínez Rivera, N. (2019). The challenges of medicinal cannabis in Colombia. A look at small - and medium - scale growers. Drug Policy Briefing No.52, Amsterdam: Transnational Institute.
California Growers Association (2018, February 15). An emerging crisis: Barriers to entry in California cannabis. Retrieved from https://www.calgrowersassociation.org/crisisreport
Bennett, E.A. (2018). Extending ethical consumerism theory to semi-legal sectors: Insights from recreational cannabis. Agriculture and Human Values, 35(2), 295-317.
See, for example, the case of human trafficking and illegal cannabis farms in the U.K. in Kelly, A. (2019, July 26). Enslaved on a British cannabis farm: ‘The plants were more valuable than my life’. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/jul/26/vietnamese-cannabis-farms-children-enslaved.
Under an inter se agreement, a group of like-minded countries could collectively create a new sub-treaty framework just for cannabis, allowing them to reconcile their domestic legislation with their commitments under the UN drug control treaties. This could open the possibility of international trade between regulated licit markets, enabling small-scale farmers in traditional cannabis-producing countries in the Global South to participate in transnational commerce at both global and regional levels. See: https://www.tni.org/en/article/the-elegant-way-to-end-global-cannabis-prohibition-inter-se-modification
CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana (2018, August). Report to the Caribbean Community Heads of Government: Waiting to Exhale - Safeguarding our Future through Responsible Socio-Legal Policy on Marijuana (p. 5).
At international level, TNI convened the first ever Global Forum for the Producers of Prohibited Plants in January 2016, bringing together over 60 farmers and farmers' representatives involved in the cultivation of the cannabis plant, opium poppy and coca leaf. This led to a political declaration - the ‘Heemskerk Declaration’. See: https://www.tni.org/en/publication/the-global-forum-of-producers-of-prohibited-plants-gfppp
An example includes that of the signing, in November 2019, of an agreement between two traditional cannabis cultivator groups in St. Vincent and the Grenadines - Greggs Rastafarian Progressive Multipurpose Cooperative Society Ltd and the Farmers' Solution Group (FSS) Limited - with a cannabis company Green Lava, for export of medical cannabis products. Per the requirements of the government of SVG, Green Lava are obligated to purchase at least 10% of their cannabis from the two groups, who between them represent 39 traditional cultivators. See: https://mca.vc/green-lava-signs-agreement-with-traditional-cannabis-cultivators/
Agroecology, for example, has grown into a global movement thanks to these strategies, with a particularly strong focus on scaling out strategies based on peer-to-peer learning taking place in peasant agroecology schools that make use of popular pedagogies and social process methodologies. For an introduction, see: Rosset, P.M., Machin Sosa, B. et al (2011). The Campesino to-Campesino Agroecology Movement of ANAP in Cuba: Social process methodology in the construction of sustainable peasant agriculture and food sovereignty. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 38(1), 161-191.