The international debate on prohibiting hemp growing goes hand in hand with Western concerns about curbing illegal trafficking and consumption. South African history helps us trace the expansion of cannabis from this country to the Americas, through the trade of slaves bound for the Antilles. The viceroyalties established in these regions experienced economic growth thanks to industrial hemp plantations. With the arrival of cannabis, new rituals and consumption spread among native Americans in a cultural exchange that went on under the yoke of slavery. Nowadays, cannabis starts finding its way onto the agenda in many countries after years of prohibitionism and counter propaganda. Cannabis now stands as a sustainable alternative and the countries where this plant is original from represent a strategic and key position in the thriving cannabis industry—and South Africa is no exception.
South Africa and Marijuana
Cannabis prohibition seems to have stemmed from—and is still related to—opium prohibition, despite some stand-alone anti-prohibition experiences during the XIX century: in countries such as Egypt, South Africa, and India, local production and recreational consumption sometimes coexisted. South Africa was one of the countries that has watched cannabis closely, just like some other neighbouring countries that joined this strategy.
A 1870 statute—whose provisions were toughened in 1887—introduced a ban on cannabis consumption and possession by Indian immigrants, mainly because of the conceived idea that the use of dagga, the term used to refer to cannabis, threatened white supremacy. The issue originated in Egypt and South Africa, jurisdictions under British influence, and eventually reached London. A report by the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission was submitted to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom in 1894, concluding that a ban on this plant was unnecessary—a disappointing outcome for prohibitionists. As a counter reaction, the prohibitionist movement spread across South Africa. Soon, cannabis was perceived as a threat to public health.
African Marijuana: In and Out
According to the World Drug Report 2011, South Africa was labelled as a cannabis source, consumption, transit, and destination country. Apparently, South African ports serve as a gateway for cannabis produced in neighbouring countries and as an exit route for cannabis grown in South Africa and headed outside the continent, showing the role of this country as a leading transhipment hub for illegal trade.
The Current Status of Cannabis in South Africa
Modernisation processes have triggered a paradigm shift related to the use of cannabis and the stigma sparked by counter propaganda and racism targeting immigrants. Countries such as Canada and Uruguay have served as an example to rethink health policies and desist from any further attempts to implement the unsuccessful prohibitionist model in the fight against the illegal market. In this context, South Africa is moving steadily towards this direction, upholding the long-lasting struggle surrounding cannabis use.
The emergence of organised and engaged cannabis activism allowed the country to legalise medical use in 2017 and decriminalise cannabis consumption in 2018. Since 2000, Cape Town has celebrated the “Cannabis Walk” every year, loudly asking for the regulation of cannabis use in rituals and religious ceremonies, and for medical and recreational purposes. The birth of the Dagga Party in 2009, led by Jeremy Acton, and the decriminalisation judgment entered by Justice Raymond Zondo in 2018 have stimulated an industry that could generate millions in income and create plenty of jobs. Investors’ and experts’ eyes are on this region, which offers great opportunities because of its experienced and qualified workforce, adequate soil and climate, and an undeniable historical legacy.