Cannabis in Lesotho


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LESOTHO is a small, mostly rural, mountainous landlocked country of about two million inhabitants, which is completely surrounded by South Africa territory although it is politically an independent state. It is one of the world’s poorest countries, with a GNP per capita of US$ 660 in 1993. Lesotho’s geographic location makes it very dependent on its powerful neighbour which absorbs most of its exports. South African mines are the largest employer of its workforce.

Cannabis indica or sativa is a shrubby plant that grows upto eight feet tall. The flowers, seeds and leaves of the female plant is called marijuana or ganja; its gum is hashish or charas. Lesotho produces large quantities of cannabis basically to supply the large South Africa marijuana market. Cannabis production clearly represents one of the country’s three main sources of hard currency, the other two being international aid and the wages sent home by Basotho miners working in South Africa. This article presents the main findings of a preliminary field study on the cannabis phenomenon in Lesotho aimed at establishing some bases for further research.

Cannabis cultivation and use as a drug are deeply entrenched in the region. Indeed, they are part of the culture of many southern African ethnic groups, and archaeological evidence suggests that cannabis had been grown and used since before the 15th century. It would seem that this tradition is now becoming a modern commercial ‘agribusiness’ of cannabis production and sale in the regional, mostly urban, mass markets.

The largest mass market for cannabis products in the region is undoubtedly South Africa. It seems that there exists a kind of South African ‘cannabis complex’ whereby some areas have specialized in producing cannabis in order to supply the consumer markets, most notably in the large urban areas of Johannesburg (and Gauteng province in general), Durban, Kwazulu-Natal and Cape Town. Although there is little doubt that cannabis is grown throughout South African territory, five distinct areas seem to have specialized in cannabis production as a significant source of income. These are parts of the South African provinces of Kwazulu-Natal, Eastern and Northern Cape (the former Transkei), as well as the two small independent states of Swaziland and Lesotho.



Most of the information on cannabis cultivation presented in this article is based on ecological, socioeconomic, and epidemiological reports produced by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) prior to the construction of the large Mohale hydroelectric dam (in Maseru and Thaba-Tseka districts) which will produce electricity for Lesotho and provide water to Gauteng province (Johannesburg), South Africa. Additional information has been gathered from interviews with six cannabis growers whose lands in the eastern, mountainous region of Maseru district will be flooded by the Mohale dam. Although cannabis production is an open secret and enjoys de facto decriminalisation, it nevertheless remains a very private activity. The LHDA points out that growers are very reticent to discuss the issue.



Cannabis is grown almost everywhere in the country, even on small plots in the capital, Maseru. However, the main growing regions are found in the high mountain zones in the centre and east of the country as well as in the western foothill region. Plantations are generally situated in the valleys of the numerous streams and rivers that drain the mountains (including the Orange River). According to all sources interviewed during the field study, cannabis production is most prevalent in the following districts: Berea, Mokhotlong, Thaba-Tseka and Qacha’s Neck.

Oral tradition has handed down the story of a ‘colonizing’ use of marijuana by the Koena people who moved from the northeast of what is now Mpumalanga province (the former Orange Free State) and settled in Lesotho around 1550 by ‘purchasing’ land from San tribes (the earliest inhabitants of South Africa, better known today as ‘Bushmen’) in exchange for marijuana. This historical background suggests why cannabis is now one of the seven plants most often cited by mountain dwellers for their curative and magic qualities. Rural people still use marijuana to treat ailments like heart burn, high blood pressure and ‘nerves’. It is also used to rid horses and donkeys of parasitic worms.

Two of the six farmers interviewed also claimed to smoke marijuana in order to ‘get strength’ and work harder, one of them saying that it stimulated his appetite. According to other sources (a psychiatrist and members of a prevention/rehabilitation NGO), these two ‘utilitarian’, or functional, properties are ascribed to marijuana by a high proportion of users throughout Lesotho, both urban and rural. Alongside this medicinal status, the field study showed that the general public partly uses the plant for utilitarian or recreational ends not recognised by local traditional medicine.

The beauty of Lesotho’s mountains should not mask the serious soil erosion. This erosion accelerated in the early 19th century when areas devoted to grain crops were significantly increased, notably in the lower fields, in order to profit from attractive prices on the international market. These fields were left fallow less and less often, becoming poorer and poorer, while livestock was sent to higher pastures.



Emigration has had a distinct impact on the drug situation in Lesotho. Money sent home by emigrant relatives represents the second most important source of income for mountain-dwelling households, supplying, according to LHDA, 38% of the total. A source observed that increasingly cannabis growers were packaging their produce themselves in the form of ready-to-smoke cigarettes prior to selling to dealers. Similarly, if hashish is being produced, it might represent a reaction to the loss of revenue once furnished by emigrants.

The commercial cultivation of cannabis increased considerably from mid-1980 onward. The LHDA’s estimates suggest that households in the Mohale dam zone currently draw 39% of their annual income from agricultural activities. Nearly 50% of that income (personal consumption included) comes from the sale of cannabis. Cannabis is cultivated in the same way as other crops. Farming in Lesotho’s mountains is not modern but based on rainfall: except cannabis, crops are primarily for personal consumption. Mountain farmers use little fertilizer (not even natural, like the manure that exists in abundance), pesticides or fungicides, all products of which they remain wary (only 8% of farmers questioned by the LHDA use them).

Mountain agriculture and cannabis crops in particular seem to obey the following model: little investment, little risk, low returns. This model seems to be adapted to the poor mountain soil which, even with intensive inputs, does not yield returns justifying the needed investment. That, at least, is the opinion of local farmers as reported by the LHDA. However, cannabis is an indispensable part of the precarious but real equilibrium maintained by mountain farms.

Studies by the LHDA show that the extremely high value of cannabis means that it supplies nearly half of all agricultural income even though it covers only 10% of land under cultivation. The LHDA estimates the profit from a hectare of corn to be 209 malotis (M 209), as compared to M 354 for a hectare of wheat, M 493 for a hectare of peas and M 4,379 for a hectare of marijuana. It is thus possible that most mountain farms in Lesotho grow a ‘cluster’ of crops, the majority of which are for personal consumption, the sole cash crop being marijuana.



According to available information, all the cannabis grown in Lesotho comes from small peasant farms in the regions listed above. Various sources indicate that cannabis is usually grown in conjunction with sweet corn, which is the staple crop of peasants, as well as the basis of their diet. Some cannabis is nevertheless grown as a single crop in more isolated regions, on as large an area as five hectares. When planted as a single crop, the size of the field is never less than three hectares, which is also the average size of their corn fields.

Planters sow cannabis between mid-August and early October. Harvesting occurs between February and April. Most of the harvest is sold during winter, generally in July. Given the important and increasing supply, winter prices offered by dealers are low (M 200 to M 300 per bag). Much better prices can be negotiated in January (M 500 to M 600, because almost all of the previous year’s production has been sold whereas the current crop is still in the stalk) or in November (M 400 to M 500, because stocks of the previous harvest are getting low and the current crop has only just been sown). Thus, farmers who are able to stock part of their harvest can increase profits by selling during the months when prices are highest. Cannabis therefore constitutes a form of savings for producers here.



Cannabis is sown with seeds obtained from the previous harvest or bought from a neighbour. In both mixed and single-crop fields, cannabis is sown directly in the field where it matures (nurseries and transplanting are not employed, as they often are in West Africa). Care involves weeding the plot and, very occasionally, applying manure and irrigating. Women generally perform these tasks, but at harvest time the whole family is involved when men, women and children work together. Harvesting and packing are sometimes the occasion for ‘work parties’ where neighbours and paid workers join in, although this system does not seem to be the rule.

The first harvest, probably carried out in January, is done on what farmers call ‘majaja’ or the male cannabis plants which do not bear flowers or seeds. The majaja harvest therefore represents a thinning of the plots, leaving only the female plants. Whereas in countries such as Morocco this thinning is normally viewed as a task designed to improve the final product, in Lesotho it has a commercial goal, to market another full-fledged product. It is difficult to obtain information on majaja, which growers distinguish from cannabis in terms of labour (only the leaves of majaja are retained) and income (majaja earns less). The leaves of male plants are separated from the stalks and are sold in bags. It is probable that majaja is sold in South Africa under the name ‘maajut’. It is used there for smoking with Mandrax in what is called ‘white pipe’.



The main harvest of ‘real cannabis’ (which contains seeds and flowers) begins in February and may continue until April, depending on weather conditions and the geographical situation. The harvested plants are carried to the farmhouse where they are generally left to dry outside, on the ground. The flowers are then separated from the stalks. The flowers with a certain amount of leaves are stuffed into bags which normally contain 50 kilograms of corn and which constitute the unit of sale in the fields.


Seizures of Hashish in Lesotho




10 March 1995

36 kg

Qacha’s Neck

13 March 1995

286 kg


30 March 1995

36 kg


20 April 1995

293 kg


19 July 1995

8.89 kg


2 July 1996

246 kg


22 July 1996

50 kg


22 July 1996

25 kg


25 July 1996

50 kg


31 July 1996

115 kg


17 May 1997

1,440 kg



(South Africa)

Source: World Customs Organisation (WCO).


The above table shows that quantities of hashish were regularly seized between 1995 and 1997 (more recent information is not available). Lesotho therefore constitutes a site of storage and distribution of relatively significant quantities of hashish. The seizures occurred in border districts (Berea and Qacha’s Neck) and in South Africa, suggesting that the hashish was destined for export to the latter country. From there it would probably have been re-exported to Europe. There is no major market for hashish in South Africa itself.

An additional indication of re-export is given by the seizure of 1.4 tons of hashish in Ermelo in May 1997. Ermelo, a small town in Mpumalanga province in South Africa, is a key highway hub near the border between South Africa and Swaziland; the South Africa/Mozambique border is not much further away. Both Swaziland and Mozambique possess international drug trafficking infrastructures. Another road leads from Ermelo directly to Gauteng province where Johannesburg is located, with its drug markets and its industrial and export infrastructures (notably international airports).



The origin of hashish remains to be determined. Is it produced in Lesotho? The question is difficult to answer. Two hypotheses, however, might be proposed: 1) Hashish is imported from Southwest Asia. It might be smuggled into Lesotho by road or rail (a line reserved solely for customs-bonded freight, links Maseru to the port of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa). Durban is known to be a South African port used extensively for the import or transit shipment of drugs including hashish produced in Southwest Asia. The same holds for the Mozambican port of Maputo, not far from Lesotho. It is therefore possible that international traffickers with infrastructures in Lesotho import and stock hashish for later shipment.

2) Hashish is produced in Lesotho itself. The great majority of seizures have taken place in Berea district, a major cannabis producer in the foothills. Its lower zones, which include a part of the Maseru urban area, are densely populated and economically active. Furthermore, unlike the distant mountain regions of the interior, this district is immediately influenced by its South African neighbour. It is therefore possible that traffickers operating on the South African market have encouraged a part of the cannabis produced in Berea district (indeed, in other districts as well) to be transformed into hashish, thereby enabling some cannabis producers to add value to their product prior to sale.

Whatever the case, Lesotho’s hashish networks seem very hermetic, for little information on them is available. Neither of the two UNDCP studies on the drug situation in Lesotho, conducted in November/December 1995 and May 1996 respectively, devoted a single line to this issue. Moreover, the law enforcement sources interviewed during the field study said that they never seized hashish. Thus the drug seizures officially reported by the police in 1996 are as follows: 15,390 kilograms of cannabis 2,625 cannabis plants; and 8 sacks of cannabis seed.

None of the hashish seizures reported by the World Customs Organisation given in the table above for Lesotho in 1996 are reflected in police statistics, despite the fact that the police is by law required to compile statistics on drug seizures carried out by all law enforcement departments, including customs.



The tense political atmosphere reigning in Lesotho in the summer of 1997 made the study of trafficking networks rather difficult. No one wanted to risk hinting that local prominent citizens might be implicated in trafficking in anyway whatsoever. It would nevertheless be quite surprising, at least as far as cannabis trafficking goes (which entails little social or penal condemnation), if traffickers enjoyed no bureaucratic or military or indeed, political protection. Non-local sources declared that some Basotho politicians more or less openly viewed cannabis revenues as an unofficial but useful boost to the country’s balance of payments. A civil servant, when confronted with the contradictions in his comments, finally admitted that, given the political situation, ‘civil servants don’t dare take action because they can’t foresee the consequence of their acts.’



Like their counterparts in other countries of the region, Lesotho civil servants often place all the blame on ‘foreigners’, who are convenient scapegoats because they are politically and socially ‘neutral’. Lesothos are even reticent to offer detailed information on compatriots arrested locally on drug charges. By contrast, South Africans are accused of fermenting cannabis production in the mountains, while Nigerians are blamed for the growing use not only of cocaine but also of synthetic drugs like LSD and ecstasy (in which Nigerian involvement is improbable). The Indo-Pakistani community, meanwhile, is suspected of extensively trafficking in Mandrax. Although some of these accusations may not be totally unfounded, they help disguise local responsibility for the demobilization and disorganization of drug enforcement measures, not to mention the protection and perhaps even collusion required for certain operations.

All the cannabis grown in landlocked Lesotho is exported to South Africa, at least initially. There are two main export routes. One heads west and north toward Bloemfontein and Ficksburg, then on to Johannesburg. This is the route taken by second and third grade cannabis grown in western and central Lesotho. Transportation is usually done by cars and trucks. It is likely that at least part of the marijuana is pooled in the towns of Maseru and Mafeteng prior to being shipped across the border. It is also probable that these towns have relatively large storage facilities.

The other route leads to Durban, the destination for first grade marijuana grown in the eastern districts of Mokhotiong, Thaba-Tseka and Qacha’s Neck. High grade cannabis often arrives in KwaZulu-Natal villages on the backs of donkeys and porters. Once in South Africa, Lesotho marijuana is taken to Durban townships by collective taxis. Dealers in marijuana and Mandrax own many of the taxi firms in townships around Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. In Durban, the cannabis is packaged and sold on the national market or exported in small quantities to Europe, mainly to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom or even to North America, often mixed with marijuana grown in KwaZulu-Natal.



Networks of South African traffickers, who supply their country’s urban markets, mainly use these two routes. Yet there also exist parallel marijuana networks supplying Lesotho miners working in South Africa. Most miners in South Africa (whether Swazi, Lesotho, Shona, or Ovambo) are known to make ‘utilitarian’ use of marijuana and sometimes Mandrax, to crank them up for work and to ‘chill out’ afterward. The South African police have raided hostels where Lesotho miners stay and has found sacks of marijuana. According to South African and Lesotho police officials, Lesotho marijuana is highly appreciated by users all over South Africa.

Besides, the isolation of the central and eastern mountain regions of Lesotho makes aircraft the best means of transportation. Some thirty small airfields are scattered across the country. It seems likely that certain airfields are used to ship medium-size quantities of marijuana to Maseru or other urban centres. This is difficult to establish. Little is known about trafficking of hashish.



It seems that a mutually fuelling relationship exists between the cannabis trade and other kinds of illicit activity in Lesotho. Bartering of stolen cars is a phenomenon in Southern African countries. Cars stolen in South Africa are sold cheaply in Lesotho. Vehicles are also stolen in Lesotho for resale abroad (primarily South Africa and Zambia). Once construction began on the dam designed to provide water to the South African province of Gauteng (and electricity to Lesotho), South African expatriates working on the site were often the victims of car theft and sometimes even lost their lives. Ever since, many South Africans working in Lesotho carry weapons and car thefts have become the main concern of South Africa’s High Commission in Maseru. Many members of the Chinese community, known as tough bosses and detested by the locals, have been victims of violent attacks and car theft.

The second smuggling activity concerns stolen livestock. Cows, sheep and goats stolen in Lesotho are taken across for sale in South Africa and vice versa. Farmers are arming themselves as defence against these thieves. Livestock is used for barter in mountain regions (cows, sheep and goats for marijuana) while cars are traded for marijuana in urban centres, mainly Maseru. As elsewhere in Southern Africa, trafficking is partly demonetised in Lesotho. Even though marijuana trafficking is generally non-violent, the police claim that some producers have armed themselves against enforcement agents. In the spring of 1997, South African hikers were attacked by marijuana smugglers in a national park on the country’s northern border.

Cannabis cultivation and trafficking probably constitute two of Lesotho’s more widespread and rewarding economic activities. Growers use marijuana income for everyday expenditures, notably for sending their children to secondary school, which is expensive in Lesotho. It is hard to speak of money laundering in this instance, since income from cannabis is an integral part of the mountain farmers’ economy. Moreover, South African and Lesotho traffickers go to the mountains and buy directly from the growers, which means that revenues generated by cannabis in the countryside are broadly distributed rather than concentrated in a few wholesalers’ hands as is the case in Swaziland. Concentration occurs among South African traffickers.



An unusual form of ‘laundering’ will certainly take place in the context of compensation for lands flooded by the Mohale dam. Sources claim that the LHDA is working on a project in association with many foreign institutional investors to take into account income generated by cannabis when it has to compensate for losses incurred by flooding farmlands. Therefore, top-level institutions judge illicit crops to be a key part of economic life in Lesotho’s rural heartland.

Although marijuana is smoked on a large scale in Lesotho, alcohol is, by far, the source of most substance abuse with direct consequences as regards public health. Imported alcoholic beverages (for example, beer, whisky) is drunk by the wealthy, while the most widespread substance of abuse is the often laced ‘homebrews’ made in shebeens (informal and illegal bars), which sometimes sell diverted psychotropic medicine such as diazepam, occasionally with tragic results. According to NGO sources, alcohol abuse and the opening of shebeens by mothers of poor families has led to a growing number of street children many of whom sniff glue.



Over the past 10 years or so, alcohol consumption habits in the land have undergone a major transformation. Old-fashioned beer was not very alcoholic, so getting drunk meant drinking a great deal over many hours, chatting all the while. These days, consumers seek ‘efficient’ drinks, and homebrews have become extremely strong. The makers of such brews add batteries, oxidized objects, marijuana and other inadmissible ingredients which they claim increase the alcoholic content.

NGOs working in drug rehabilitation centres have noted an increase in the number of cases of problematic cannabis abuse since early 1997 reversing a steady decrease that began in the early 1990s. They are not able to identify the causes of this sudden hike. Almost every patient requesting medical help for cannabis abuse also consumes alcohol. Marijuana use is widespread in Lesotho, perhaps more in towns than in the countryside. According to an epidemiological investigation by the LHDA in the mountainous Mohale dam zone, only 10% of the local population of all age groups smoke marijuana even though 75% of that population produces it. Cannabis, it should be recalled, is part of the impressive Lesotho pharmacy of 160 medicinal herbs, each of which has its own special properties.

Apart from its status as an export product, it would seem that cannabis is still largely viewed as a medicinal plant in the mountain regions and is therefore subject to social or sociomedical control. Rural residents who consume it without a traditional doctor’s medical prescription are therefore diverting a drug within their own tradition to a utilitarian or recreational, non-medical function (working harder, stimulating the appetite, ‘chilling out’ after work).

It is interesting to compare this attitude with the one pertaining to western psychotropic drugs (like diazepam), which are widely consumed in rural areas in Lesotho, according to many sources. These latter substances are not subject to traditional restrictions. On the contrary, shebeen keepers who deal in them for profits probably stimulate their consumption. Cannabis, which grows abundantly in the mountains and can be easily obtained by rural residents for their own use, does not carry this economic potential locally.



In this case, what happens is a spreading and deepening addiction to a legal, non-traditional drug (distributed illicitly, though at little risk) whereas the illicit but traditional cannabis, though cheaper and more abundant, is subject to what are probably ancestral social strictures and, therefore, is not so widely abused. In towns, on the other hand, cannabis use is probably mostly of the recreational and utilitarian type, that is to say it is influenced by prevailing ‘modern’ habits. Urban consumers are simultaneously freed from the social restrictive control placed on cannabis abuse by traditional society and shackled by economic necessity and the effect of fashion stemming from close links with South Africa, particularly its mines.