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Get up, stand up! Cannabis in South Africa

South Africa

‘In this life, I am known as Ras Gareth Prince,’ he says with a smile. We are seated at a table, drinking tea made with indigenous herbs in a Rastafarian bookshop in Muizenberg, a seaside suburb of Cape Town. Other Rastafarians sit around, drinking the tea, leafing through some of the shop’s eclectic selection of books.

‘When Ethiopia was invaded in 1935, Emperor Haile Selassie had to go into exile. People doubted him, but he returned victorious five years later,’ Prince tells me, recounting the anti-colonial story of the African leader Rastafarians worship as the Second Coming of Christ. ‘Because he went through that, we were confident in good over evil. It was just a matter of time, that’s why we endured it,’ says Prince, to cheers of ‘Jah bless!’ from the other Rastafarians. They have reason to cheer him. Earlier this year, Prince led a successful constitutional challenge at the Western Cape High Court, which ruled that smoking and growing cannabis (locally known as dagga) in private homes should be legal.

Over the next 24 months, the constitutional court is set to ratify the judgement so parliament can make amendments to the Drug Trafficking Act and Medicines Control Act. South Africa joins Spain, Uruguay and some US states in legalizing cannabis possession and cultivation for all, and many other countries which now allow medicinal use. Prince’s fight for cannabis freedom – he doesn’t use the term legalization – is an ideological and deeply personal one. Growing up in the 1970s, he was part of what the apartheid regime defined as the ‘coloured’ community: a term used in South Africa to this day to describe people with mixed heritage. His father worked on the railways and his mother in a factory. They were part of the Dutch Reformed Church and spoke Afrikaans, the language of Dutch settlers associated with apartheid.

‘We weren’t taught our indigenous tongue at school, that was the extent of the language genocide that took place in this country,’ he explains. Prince describes himself as an inquisitive child who was reading newspapers with his father from the age of six. ‘I was reading Afrikaner newspapers though, which condition you towards a certain consciousness. I didn’t interact with my black brothers and sisters until I was at university in 1988.’

Reggae music led Prince to discover Rastafarianism at university. The relatively new religion is best known for its use of cannabis as a sacrament and belief in pan-African empowerment; it could not be more at odds with Afrikaner Calvinism. Before the European invasion of southern Africa, dagga was used for centuries by indigenous Khoisan and Bantu people.

The debate around cannabis has always been informed by emotionalism, conjecture and outright lies

Official historical accounts often state public health as the primary concern behind its criminalization, but the British colonial regime (which sowed the seeds of apartheid in 1948) had other reasons to fear cannabis. Prince’s constitutional challenge heard from experts such as Craig Paterson, a researcher at Rhodes University, whose work outlines how cannabis was seen as a substance that reduced labourers’ efficiency, caused criminality in ‘natives’, and encouraged interracial mixing. This fear escalated when industrialization led different races to interact more regularly, particularly in the mines where dagga smoking was common. ‘Sharing dagga brought communities together,’ says Prince. ‘One of the biggest fears was interracial sex, because they said that cannabis caused these good white Christian daughters to be sexually licentious, to lose all inhibitions under the influence of this devil weed!’

The possibility of a changing consciousness was too big a risk for the colonial government. Moreover, because the Dutch East India Company had monopolies on the tobacco and alcohol industries, the effects of these drugs on public health or crime were ignored. And so cannabis was prohibited in Cape Colony from as early as 1891, and nationally in 1922 – after which South Africa became the first country to advocate for global prohibition, appealing for its inclusion as a habit-forming drug by the League of Nations.

Taking up the challenge

‘The debate around cannabis has never been informed by reason or logic. It has always been informed by emotionalism, conjecture and outright lies,’ says Prince.

Thanks to a combination of colonial hangover laws and the global war on drugs, cannabis remains illegal in South Africa, to the detriment of people like Prince. After several years living as a Rasta, his top grades got him the financial assistance to go to law school. But when Prince qualified as a lawyer in the mid-1990s, he was denied a license to practise because of a previous arrest for cannabis possession as a student.

Ras Gareth Prince, the Rastafarian lawyer fighting for Cannabis legalization – cannabis freedom – in South Africa. Cannabis South Africa
Ras Gareth Prince, the Rastafarian lawyer fighting for Cannabis legalization – cannabis freedom – in South Africa. Photo: Thomas Lewton

At this stage Prince launched his first constitutional challenge on the grounds of religious freedom, which was denied in 2002, although the judgment was close. ‘I knew that South Africa wasn’t ready for cannabis freedom then,’ Prince admits. ‘It was unheard of in the West, so there’s no way we could do it… you weren’t going to get aid from places like America if you had progressive drug policies.’

For the next 15 years Prince lived peacefully in the Rastafarian community with his wife and, unable to represent people in court, worked as a legal advisor. It wasn’t until June 2012 when he and his family were arrested in their home for growing cannabis that Prince launched his next constitutional challenge. This time he chose to argue that cannabis prohibition infringes upon rights to freedom, dignity and equality, all enshrined in South Africa’s constitution.

‘That same year Washington and Colorado became the first US states to achieve cannabis freedom… the news actually came on my birthday,’ he laughs. Cannabis movements were also already making waves closer to home, from constitutional cases like Prince’s to legalization protests in the country’s major cities. But the US ruling meant South Africans began fighting more than ever for cannabis use recreationally, medicinally and, in the case of hemp, industrially.

Prince’s challenge was amalgamated with 19 other defendants, whose dagga charges were put on hold until the case had been heard. It took over four years for this to happen, in which time Prince estimates close to a million people were arrested for cannabis-related crime.

‘Think of the amount of money wasted keeping small-time offenders in prison for a night or two. The judge said it could instead be used to fight real crime,’ explains Prince. But in the end the challenge was won not on economic grounds, nor on the rights to dignity or equality so close to Prince’s heart. ‘They felt that the main focus of the case was actually privacy. I can understand privacy, it allows white people to sleep better at night, and it’s a more neutral way that allows most people to save face. But equality is the issue that is at the core.’

Like so many issues in South Africa today, the cannabis debate can be rooted back to the country’s history of racist oppression. And though in many ways society remains divided, the fight for ‘cannabis freedom’ does seem to be a unifier, visible from the diverse mix of people involved in constitutional challenges and street protests. But when the law change comes into force it will mean more to Prince than most. Not only will he – and his fellow Rastafarians – be able to grow and use cannabis at home without fear of arrest, but his dream of practising law will be realized. ‘Sister,’ he says, eyes twinkling, ‘I was born to be a lawyer, and after 20 years of struggle, that’s what I’m going to do.’

Alice McCool is a freelance journalist who mainly reports from sub-Saharan Africa. Her work has been published in The Guardian, VICE and BBC News.

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