South Africa, officially the Republic of South Africa (RSA), is a country located at the southern tip of Africa. It has 2798 km of coastline that stretches along the South Atlantic and Indian oceans. To the north lie the neighbouring countries of Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe; to the east are Mozambique and Swaziland; and within it lies Lesotho, an enclave surrounded by South African territory. South Africa is the 25th-largest country in the world by land area, and with close to 53 million people, is the world's 25th-most populous nation.
History of Cannabis in South Africa
The use of cannabis in South Africa dates back to the 15th century. Arab as well as Persian and Indian merchants are reported to have been responsible for its spread along the eastern coast of the African continent in the 13th century. By the 15th century, Swahili merchants in East Africa and some Bantu tribes in Central and Southern Africa co-operated in bringing the plant to Southern Africa where it was later also cultivated.
Before the arrival of the Dutch and British Empires in 1652 and 1795 respectively, cannabis was one of the many traditional herbs consumed by indigenous southern Africans. An integral part of the culture of traditional communities, strict rules and values governed the circumstances under which it could be used and availability was usually controlled by tribal elders. Dagga, as it is known locally, was outlawed in 1928 to allow the ruling white elite to profit from tobacco and to enable the racist Apartheid State to financially dis-empower and disrupt the culture of the indigenous people. Along with other Apartheid laws such as the Group Areas Act, the criminalization of cannabis provided opportunities for the authorities to harass and arrest indigenous peoples of South Africa.
South Africa is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of cannabis, and is the main regional hub for cannabis trading. Although cannabis is illegal in South Africa, the sheer scale of the industry is sufficient to render most eradication efforts ineffectual. The rampant corruption within the police force also leads to a system in which criminal elements with sufficient financial resources can easily avoid unwelcome attention by paying bribes.
It is believed that South American cartels are now partially relocating cocaine and methamphetamine processing operations to parts of western and southern Africa; as a result, the United States has begun training elite squads of counter narcotics agents throughout the continent. Thus far, US counter narcotics operations have been limited to Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya, although assistance and training has also been provided to the South African Police Service by the U.S. Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
The main regulatory body responsible for drug policy in South Africa is the Central Drug Authority (CDA), which is opposed to decriminalising of cannabis. In 2009, Wikileaks released the CDA report, The South African Position Paper on Cannabis, which had up until then been kept secret by South African authorities. This paper reiterates the official government stance that prohibition is necessary to preserve public health, and has been subject to criticism due to its questionable basis in scientific fact.
In 2014, the Medical Innovation Bill was presented to parliament by Inkata Freedom Party MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini. The bill proposed the legalization of cannabis "for medical, economic and industrial purposes" for the first time in the nation's history.
The issue has also been getting more national exposure lately with mainstream press such as radio stations Voice of Wits, Talk Radio 702, Radio Sonder Grense (RSG), Jacaranda FM and Lotus FM all devoting time to it. Television station M-NET’s flagship investigative journalism program Carte Blanche showcased a segment on the medical uses of the plant in their March 2014 feature. SABC3’s Special Assignment also aired an investigation titled “Dagga: Clearing the Smoke”.
Arrests and Sentences
Cannabis is a Schedule I narcotic in the country however possession of small amounts is likely to result in a fine or a warning. Trafficking, distribution and supply cases are liable for a maximum prison sentence of 25 years, but such sentences are handed out rarely due to the high incidence of corruption.
In 2011, a group of twenty mules were recruited to transport 20kg each to the UK; ten were arrested, and ten made it through. With an estimated wholesale value of around £1,000/kg in the UK, and an outlay of as little as £20/kg in South Africa, the margins are so high as to still yield a huge profit even when plane tickets, accommodation costs and payments to mules are taken into account.
Often, South African drug mules are white and female, and are forced to undertake such high-risk ventures due to dire financial circumstances. Arrests of traffickers are very likely to occur in destination countries or en route; currently, over 600 South Africans are remanded or serving custodial sentences in foreign prisons, of which almost half are South American.
Local Events, Organisations and Media
- Cape Town Cannabis March, an annual pro-cannabis rally held in May. The next date has been set for May 9, 2015
- 420 Jozie Day, another annual pro-cannabis demonstration held in Johannesburg every year on April 20
- Below the Lion, South Africa's first online cannabis magazine
- The Dagga Couple, a popular pro-cannabis activist group
- Dagga Party, the only local political party with a manifesto focusing specifically on cannabis legalization
- Fields of Green for All, a non profit organisation assisting citizens arrested on cannabis related charges
As an indication of the evolving attitudes of South Africans, local state funded broadcaster, the SABC hosted morning interviews with representatives from all political parties to establish each party's position on cannabis during the course of October and November 2014. This series of interviews hosted by Eben Jansen became popularly known as the #DaggaDebate and was a trending topic on Twitter at one point.
The Dagga Party of South Africa, also known by their isiXhosa name Iqela Lentsango, was established by its leader Jeremy Acton who is one of South Africa's most devoted and longest serving dagga activists. The Dagga Party have a very strong presence and following on Facebook despite never actually having made it onto an election ballot.
On April 9–10, 2015 the Department of Social Development and the Central Drug Authority hosted a two-day conference in Benoni near Johannesburg, which brought together health experts, religious groups and civil society organisations, and was the first of its kind in South Africa to debate the potential medicinal use of cannabis and the pros and cons of legalization.
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- South Africa's craze for heroin-marijuana cocktail by Will Ross (September 18, 2013), BBC News
- MP pleads with Zuma to allow medical use of marijuana in SA by Chantall Presence (February 20, 2014), Business Day
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