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EYES ON: South Africa Is Setting the Cannabis Standard for the Continent

South Africa’s courts have opened the door for adult-use cannabis in the country… will President Cyril Ramaphosa kick it down?




South Africa

CANNABIS, OR “DAGGA” as it is known in South Africa, has come a long way since it was first banned in the Natal Colony back in 1870. Rules governing medical cannabis have been greatly loosened and recreational dagga has been decriminalized for personal cultivation and use, though buying and selling marijuana is still illegal.

This liberation of dagga in South Africa has come via court ruling. Official legislative and executive legalization is still dragging along in the National Assembly, which is slowly moving a 2020 legalization bill through its consideration process.

Still, the excitement is palpable at the highest levels of government over the potential economic power of cannabis. In his State of the Nation Address (SONA) in February, President Cyril Ramaphosa promised to “review the policy and regulatory framework for industrial hemp and cannabis to realize the huge potential for investment and job creation.”

He also said that his government would streamline South Africa’s regulatory processes for medical cannabis, “so that the hemp and cannabis sector can thrive like it is in other countries.”

This positive energy for cannabis is also evident at the provincial level. Premier of Gauteng David Makhura says he wants to make his province, South Africa’s wealthiest and most populated, the country’s first “Cannabis Hub” as part of a 45 billion rand (US$2.65 billion) Special Economic Zone development in the southern regions of the province.

This is “put your money where your mouth is” commitment.

Investors and observers outside the country should understand that South Africa is not just starting out as a market for cannabis production and consumption. The shelves of major pharmaceutical retailers are stocked with CBD products.

Even within the evolving regulatory environment, companies are obtaining licenses for the cultivation of medicinal cannabis. And the mood of the market is that legalization is coming—witness the number of cannabis expos being held and marketing platforms being developed in South Africa in anticipation of that day.

South Africa’s climate, other natural and economic resources, and most of all its people support an excellent environment for dagga to flourish as a driver of economic and cultural growth within the country and across the African Continental Free Trade Area.

South Africa’s Road to Legalization

Cannabis for personal use has been decriminalized in South Africa since 2018. But rules limiting access remain in place. Here is a timeline of key events.

  • 1870: The first law is passed in the Natal Colony banning “smoking, use or possession” of “any portion of the hemp plant” by Indian workers, known as “coolies.” The Cape and Transvaal colonies also restrict the growth of sativa plants—though “dagga,” the Khoekhoe-derived term for cannabis, is reportedly sold “openly and normally” to miners in the Transvaal until the 1920s.
  • 1922: Possession and use of “habit-forming drugs,” including cannabis, is criminalized in the newly formed Union of South Africa.
  • 1928: Cannabis is wholly outlawed in South Africa under the Medical, Dental and Pharmacy Act.
  • 1937: The Weeds Act makes property owners responsible for ensuring cannabis isn’t grown on their property.
  • 1965: The Medicines Act allows for schedule 4 substances (including CBD) to be prescribed by licensed practitioners, while schedule 7 substances (including THC) are deemed to “have no legitimate medicinal use.” THC is later designated as a schedule 6 substance, with more permissions granted for use.
  • 1994: Parts of the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act of 1992 that presume guilt for dealing dagga are invalidated by RSA’s new constitutional courts.
  • 2009: The Dagga Party is founded by Jeremy Acton with the purpose of legalizing cannabis. Since 2019, the party has been allied with African Democratic Change (ADeC)
  • 2010s: Popular support for cannabis legalization grows as demonstrators take to the streets to march against prohibition.
  • 2018: The South African Constitutional Court decriminalizes the use and cultivation of cannabis in a private space. Buying and selling cannabis, cannabis oil and cannabis seeds remains illegal.
  • 2022: Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill of 2020, which would codify the courts’ decriminalization rulings, is currently under consideration by the National Assembly. The official position of the Central Drug Authority is that dagga should be decriminalized.

Kingsley Makhubela & Petrus De Kock are the founding partners of RiskRecon, a Johannesburg-based firm providing a spectrum of unique and specialized executive consulting services.



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