What history teaches us about shaping South Africa’s new cannabis laws

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South African  cannabis  policy is currently at a crossroads. In 2018, the Constitutional Court  effectively decriminalized  private cannabis use. Since then, the government has continued to grapple with how to regulate this plant and its products, locally called ‘ dagga ’. A cannabis  bill  to clarify legal reforms was recently presented in parliament. Yet, medical and civil rights groups who advocate rights-based approaches  remain wary  of the ongoing potential for discrimination. They argue it will benefit the affluent and  impact negatively on vulnerable communities, who may not have space at home to cultivate the crop and will be criminally penalized for smoking cannabis outside the home. With a cannabis industry estimated at  over $300-billion  worldwide, much is at stake. Already, South African boutique producers are navigating  legal loopholes  to deliver cannabis products to young, urban middle-class consumers. Some government officials see dagga as a ticket to  economic growth . This is through agriculture and medicinal products that can be marketed for pain alleviation, sleep and skin care. ‘Notorious drug dealer’ Madam Caroline arrested in Nigeria South Africa’s legal cannabis industry could be worth $23 billion South Africa approves country’s first cannabis college But, would further liberalization invite “corporate capture”  as some development practitioners fear? If so, what will happen to people in rural communities who, for decades, have eked out risky livelihoods by illegally cultivating dagga? History provides crucial insights into the questions of social justice at stake in current policy debates. Our  recent study  using police statistics from the mid 1900s uncovers trends in cannabis arrests and seizures, by geographical area. It shows the South Africa apartheid state to have been a pioneer in supply-side drug control strategies, targeting rural cannabis farmers in the most impoverished parts of the country. Listening to the lessons of history means protecting and…

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