A deal that would have seen Uganda become one of the top producers of medical marijuana in the region hangs in balance after Health minister Dr Jane Ruth Aceng denied approving the venture.
The deal involves a Tel Aviv Stock Exchange-listed firm Together Pharma Limited, which produces and exports medical cannabis around the world. The firm is working with a Ugandan company; Industrial Hemp Uganda Limited, which is linked to former Bunyaruguru County MP Benjamin Cadet.
The Israeli firm had released a series of letters indicating that Together Pharma had the go-ahead to start growing cannabis and consequently set up an extraction plant in Uganda. One of the letters from National Drug Authority (NDA) was signed by former managing director Dona Kusemererwa and the other by then acting director, Inspectorate and Enforcement Denis Mwesigwa.
In the first letter dated April 28, 2016, addressed to Cadet Benjamin, on the request for manufacturing license for medical cannabis, Kusemererwa wrote: “National Drug Authority has noted that you have already obtained clearance for the same from Uganda Police, ministry of Health, and ministry of Agriculture… basing on the purpose of manufacture, NDA has no objection.”
“However, you should clarify on the type of manufacturing that you intend to carry out whether it is the manufacture of the finished product or raw materials,” the letter read.
In the same year, a letter dated July 16, 2018, signed by Mwesigwa showed that an inspection of the extraction plant in Komamboga Industrial Area had taken place on June 6, 2018.
“Following the inspection conducted on June 6, 2018, of the proposed location and review of the proposal submitted on June 26, 2018, the proposed premise was found suitable for setting up an extraction facility,” the letter reads.
“However, you are advised to obtain NEMA Environmental Impact Assessment report for the area as well as hold a meeting with NDA on an agreed date to discuss the structure designs…”
But despite the correspondence’s, the Health minister, the only authority by law responsible for the approval of growing and manufacturing of medical cannabis in Uganda, has said she has never approved any firm to grow the crop and or start an extraction facility.
The National Drug Policy and Authority Act, 1993 provides that “No person shall, without the written consent of the Minister… cultivate any plant from which a narcotic drug can be extracted”.
“I have never given such permission. Cabinet sat and said we need to do more research on this issue. The law allows only the minister of Health to approve and then other processes can go on. I have not done that,” Aceng said in an interview.
In October 2018 when media reports in Israel circulated that Together Pharma’s claim to have necessary approvals in Uganda were doubtful, the company responded with the statement referring to the letters from NDA as a piece of evidence that it had necessary approvals.
It added: “Nir Sussinski, one of the controlling shareholders of the company and the CEO of the subsidiary, met with the Ugandan minister of Agriculture who confirmed to him that the company is entitled to conduct the medical cannabis activity in Uganda.”
In the same month, Agriculture minister Vincent Ssempijja told our reporter that “the process to provide approvals is ongoing. But on Monday, Sempijja said he could not remember where the process had reached.
According to a statement issued on March 21, 2019, Together Pharma, emphasized that it had received official letters signed by Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Gen Kahinda Otafiire confirming that Industrial Hemp Uganda Limited, the partner company in Uganda, has all the necessary permits to grow, manufacture and export medical cannabis in Uganda.
The letter continued to say that the National Drug Authority of Uganda had granted Industrial Hemp Uganda Ltd, the permission. But when contacted, Otafiire rubbished the claims, bluntly telling this reporter; “You don’t know what you’re talking about”.
The assertions debunk Together Pharma’s pronouncements that it had the necessary approvals to grow the crop in Uganda and set up an extraction facility.
On its website, Industrial Hemp Uganda Limited shows that it is already growing medical cannabis in the country. It states: “The Company is primarily engaged in the growing and development of medical cannabis (medical marijuana) and cannabis products for industrial purposes in Uganda.”
According to last October report in Haaretz, an Israel-based newspaper, Together Pharma stated that its operations in Uganda mean it wouldn’t be dependent on the restrictions regarding cannabis exports from Israel, which were still being drafted and are shrouded in uncertainty.
According to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act 2015, persons involved in the manufacture, production, sale, or distribution of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances commit an offence and are liable, on conviction, to a ﬁne or imprisonment of as much as five years or both.
The law also prohibits the cultivation of any plant, including cannabis, from which narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances may be extracted, without permission from the Health minister.