‘Sunrise’ Cannabis sector still to emerge in South Africa

‘Sunrise’ Cannabis sector still to emerge in South Africa

Navigating the Murky Waters of Cannabis Legalization: A South African Perspective.

It feels as if we have been at a critical juncture with our “sunrise” cannabis sector for the past two decades. Confusion reigns amid legal uncertainty; pot shops are opening on every second corner and the president has been unable to find his pen since the end of February. 

It is painful to watch the cannabis community divided on some strategic issues but it is #420 this week, on a Saturday nogal, and I can assure you that many, many South Africans will celebrate this, our International Dagga Day, with spliffs and bongs, dabs and great music and generous, like-minded company this weekend.

I would like to salute the members of our diverse cannabis culture. Without their love and support Fields of Green for All would never have been able to keep going after Jules (Stobbs) died.

South Africans know that cannabis is a rights issue that is difficult to contextualise within a drug war rhetoric. South Africans work to promote harm reduction principles across the board, from the safety of our dagga private clubs to companies (mostly) making every effort to supply safe cannabis and related products. We also recognise that cannabis is a harm reduction tool and we will never have to retrofit our sector in the way that we have seen with other, more potent drugs made even more harmful by prohibition. 

This is why we are all pleased that harm reduction is now part of drug policy language internationally, after it was (finally) recognised by the United Nations’ commission on narcotic drugs last month. This is a big step; previously we only ever heard of demand and supply reduction. In the big picture, the harms of prohibition have always outweighed the perceived harms of the cannabis plant and its uses. We have been saying this for decades and we hope that South Africa takes note.

At Fields of Green for All we know that drug policy reform is not a straight road from taking the government to court and then progressing to the point where we have new laws that are evidence-based, tick the constitutional boxes and a land of cannabis and fat bank accounts.

Frustratingly, trade remains illegal in South Africa. The Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill (CfPPB) is sorely lacking in some respects. It was always going to be a private purposes bill. Court papers may be immaculate and activism fervent but once we moved into the realm of politics — parliamentary portfolio committees, endless “stakeholder engagement” meetings and enough indabas to make the producers of Ricoffy rich — we entered muddy waters. 

If we walk upstream of the muddy waters that bother us, we can remember that this 20 April for International Dagga Day people will celebrate the gains we have made since the dark days of full prohibition when there were 1 000 arrests a day.

Let us commit to knowing our rights when we come across the old lemons of prohibition and stand up to stigma, wherever it presents itself.

Maybe we can take a step back and see the bill as an interim one on our way to a well thought out, evidence-based cannabis for all purposes bill. Let us advocate for the regulations being crafted to underline the CfPPB, to expand and grow into regulations that encompass all four platforms of cannabis use — responsible adult use as the umbrella providing constitutional cover for traditional, cultural and religious uses; the uses for industrial hemp, and health uses (outside the strict and exclusionary prescription medicines arena).

Let us stand in solidarity with our fellow Africans who are far behind on the legalisation journey and commit to South Africa being the shining green light for the rest of our continent.

South Africa needs to take its place at the international table, together with other developing countries who are championing their historic uses of plant-based drugs. At the UN meeting in March, Columbia and Bolivia expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo when it comes to international drug conventions, and defended and promoted their traditional plant based-drug, coca leaf. They received resounding support. In South Africa, dagga has an equivalent traditional and cultural status. But where was South Africa during the commission on narcotic drugs? 

South Africa still uses the excuse that drug control treaties do not allow the legalisation of cannabis beyond personal use to keep themselves in a comfortable position on the international stage. Not only is cannabis being legalised in parts of the world, regardless of compliance, but Colombia explained during the commission how article 2 (paragraph 9) of the 1961 convention provides a lawful framework to legalise coca leaf for “other than medical and scientific purposes” (that is, nonmedical purposes). The same path is also viable for the legalisation of cannabis, and would maintain conformity with the convention. 

Not only did Colombia and Bolivia announced their plans to legalise coca leaf and defend the rights of traditional and indigenous coca farmers (against prohibition but also other threats like biopiracy, the plundering of plant heritage and knowledge) but they also set up displays promoting the beauty and usefulness of the coca plant in the UN’s main hall. The South African delegation to the commission, besides being there to represent the cannabis community, has yet to stick its neck out.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa finds his pen, cannabis will be out of the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act of 1992. That is huge. Where to put cannabis within our legal framework, and how to regulate it without the police coming to the gate to count plants, is one of the next big questions. As are the pivotal questions posed by Fields of Green for all’s 10 crisis points on the road to cannabis legalisation. None of these are easy fixes but, as we see the rise in significance being given to our indigenous and traditional knowledge systems, and the protection of our genetic resources, we will continue to petition our leaders, in all ways possible, for a clear way forward.

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Region: South America


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