Cannabis bill a step in the right direction, but privacy and equality concerns remain

The perception of cannabis (dagga) 30 years ago was largely that only the worst kind of people would make use of it. Now, countries such as South Africa are making steps to legalise cannabis usage through the Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill. While pointing in the right direction, this bill falls short and has the potential to create further discrimination and perpetuate the black market for drugs. This bill does not address the cross impact this industry will have specifically on overall public health management or on others such as the agricultural and economic sector.

The bill will regulate the privacy of individuals and their consumption of cannabis. The main means of accessing this drug is supposed to be a maximum of 1,2kg of self-grown cannabis for two adults. Any use of cannabis in public, around children or sold is criminalised up to 15 years. Further, any exchange of cannabis between individuals should not be for commercial purposes, but for altruistic reasons.

A major concern is that the bill is intended for wealthier individuals and will further marginalise groups that use cannabis. This is evidenced through cannabis being accessed primarily by people who are able to grow it on their own premises. Not all South Africans have access to much space; 12,5 million South Africans don’t have housing, never mind the privacy nor space to grow it. Cannabis/ hemp is a crop and the expectation that people will have the time, the space or even access to others who will give them cannabis altruistically is unrealistic. The government is trying to regulate cannabis yet the bill does not even provide a framework for accessing seeds. The idea that individuals must cultivate their own cannabis consistently is unrealistic especially within the industrialised agricultural climate.

In a fundamental way, this Bill negates itself. To ensure enforcement of the prescribed quantities of cannabis would requires leaf counting, or a body to regulate the growing structure in people’s homes. This negates the constitutional right to privacy that the bill intends to protect. Further, the bill does not tackle what happens regarding overproduction or where people are to properly dispose of it and who will regulate this disposal.

This bill is one-dimensional, maintaining the same narrow perspective  that cannabis is an illicit substance that must be suppressed. For instance, the main department tasked with creating and controlling regulation for cannabis is the Department of Justice. Cannabis requires involvement from other departments such as agriculture to help regulate the areas where people can farm. Due to cannabis being a drug it is also a public health matter, yet there is no collaborative effort with the health sector to communicate and study cannabis.

South Africa's cannabis industry is expected to be worth nearly $1,7 billion (R26 billion) by 2023. This is notable, as global perspectives on cannabis are changing and there is growing market demand. For instance, the UN-backed International Narcotics Control Board has reclassified Cannabis as less harmful and can be used for medicinal therapies. The main African trading partner for the USA and the EU is South Africa, this provides South Africa with the opportunity to distinguish itself from other African states beyond basic commodities. Cannabis provides the opportunity for states to enhance the agricultural sector, especially in other African countries.

This Bill does not consider the broader cultural context of South Africa and the relationship that many populations may have with varying plant life and nature, and the impact of criminalising this important aspect of their lives.

The current legislative model that is being adopted would superficially work in a context 20 years ago. Regulation that is based on heavy criminalisation has the potential to further inequality and institutionalise 'morality'.

South Africa is not the first country to legalise cannabis. There are two main models that can be used. The American model and the Uruguayan model.

The American model essentially commercialises cannabis. Private actors are free to produce and sell cannabis, but there are regulatory bodies that monitor strains, licensing and other food and safety regulations. This is a model that treats cannabis as any other commercial product such as alcohol and tobacco.

The Uruguayan model is one that increases state involvement. For instance, cannabis is sold in pharmacies to limit how much an individual can purchase, and only certain portions of the population may buy cannabis such as citizens and permanent residents.

I would advise a model that considers the cultural and socioeconomic legacies of Cannabis in South Africa, whilst maintaining fairness and competition. A model that currently represents this is the American model.

Despite being a step in the right direction for cannabis in South Africa, the Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill is not holistic in achieving the goal of public health and safety. If passed in its current format in 2021, this bill will have long lasting effects regarding how privacy and equality are approached in South Africa. It will also negatively impact the opportunity to unlock increased social and economic stability.

This article was first published on City Press on 21 January 2021

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