Image: Rick Proctor (Unsplash)
Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, cannabis advocacy has been increasing around the world as a number of different cannabis lobby groups and individuals are increasingly using social media platforms to promote normalising and decriminalising cannabis use. Subsequently, several states have undertaken measures to reform their cannabis laws and establish new legal frameworks to regulate the use, possession and cultivation of cannabis. Therefore, it is the intention of this article to explore the normalisation of cannabis use as well as the shift towards legalising cannabis cultivation around the world. Furthermore, this article will assess the strengths and weaknesses of South Africa’s Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill.
Cannabis or marijuana is a drug, but it is also a plant. Historically, cannabis has been an important and useful plant, which has been primarily used as a fibre crop for making paper, cloth and rope. A key feature that distinguishes cannabis from other narcotics is that it is derived directly from the plant and it involves minimal processing to produce a consumable and effective drug. There are other common plant-based drugs namely coca and opium, which involve a greater degree of processing than cannabis to convert them into their commonly recognised products. Unlike cannabis, the use of coca and opium is not as widespread. There is a degree of social tolerance surrounding the use of cannabis when compared to other illegal drugs and to some extent legal drugs, specifically tobacco and alcohol. Furthermore, the effects of cannabis are generally seen to be pleasant with less harmful adverse effects when compared to other drugs.
From the 1960s onwards, the demand for cannabis in the developed world began to increase rapidly. It was during this time that international efforts of drug control took on a more coherent form with the 1961 United Nations (UN) Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This marked the beginning of internationally organised eradication efforts directed at the narcotic plants outlawed by the UN Convention, namely cannabis, coca and opium. During the 1980s and 1990s relatively small quantities of cannabis were intercepted in several ports and airports in the industrialised world. Concurrently, the police and media in several countries discovered more cannabis and cultivation sites. One of the primary goals of the War on Drugs was the prevention of drug use, by creating a scarcity of supply through supply-side crackdowns and by stigmatising drugs through social marketing. These international supply-side crackdowns had the unintended effect of driving suppliers and illicit narcotic markets further underground and dispersing them over vast distances. Today, new models of cannabis regulation, including the partial or full legalisation of cannabis are emerging globally. Yet, they have had little success in curbing the flow of illicit cannabis supply and distribution.
New patterns of production related to the globalisation of cannabis cultivation are being observed in the global economic arena. Over the last 25 years, cannabis cultivation has spread around the world. A major driver of the increase in cannabis cultivation is linked to the rising demand for the plant. Cannabis is the most widely consumed and trafficked narcotic in the world. The high demand for the plant has prompted both users and non-users alike to grow cannabis in order to reap the economic benefits it offers. Moreover, cannabis is a plant that can be grown easily in most conditions; thus, its cultivation is particularly widespread in developing and underdeveloped countries. Evidently, the earnings from supplying cannabis outweigh the risks of doing so. As a result of the widespread cultivation of cannabis, its financial benefits and societal tolerance, many countries have to some extent legalised the use, possession, cultivation and or/distribution of cannabis. Countries such as Morocco and Mexico are major suppliers of cannabis to European and American consumers, respectively. There is an inherent issue in this framework of trade, it retains the status quo of developing nations as mere providers of raw materials, this model still consigns developing countries to the primary level of extraction and assigns specific roles in the global value chain. This model, which enables the extraction of minerals and thereafter the exportation of these minerals to the developed world for processing, continues to entrench the inequitable global divisions of labour. Consequently, cannabis producers in Southern Africa, namely in Tanzania, Lesotho, Swaziland and South Africa will only reap miniscule financial return in comparison to criminal organisations who export final (processed) drug products.
Although the sale of cannabis remains illegal in many countries, possession of small amounts is no longer a crime in Jamaica, Brazil and Portugal. Owing to its medicinal properties some countries have legalised the use of cannabis for medical purposes, namely South Korea, the United Kingdom and a few states in the United States. Medical marijuana is prescribed by some medical practitioners to aid in a whole range of ailments such as nausea, vomiting, a lack of appetite, chronic pain, glaucoma and sometimes depression and insomnia. These perceived and/or evidence-proven and beneficial uses of cannabis have promoted social tolerance among non-users and increasingly normalised the use of cannabis. Initially, cannabis was listed alongside deadly and addictive narcotics, including heroin in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Recently, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) amended its stance on cannabis and reclassified cannabis as a less risky narcotic, leading to changes in the way cannabis is internationally regulated. The Netherlands is one of the long-standing countries with less punitive legal regimes surrounding the use of cannabis, the drug is sold openly for recreational use in coffee shops. Presently, Uruguay and Canada are the only two countries which have legalised non-medical (recreational) cannabis use and retail sale in small amounts. In Spain and South Africa, it is legal for adults to use cannabis in private.
In 2018 the South African Constitutional Court ruled to decriminalise the use, possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal (private) use by adults. The Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill presently tabled in parliament was subsequently drafted by the Department of Justice and Correctional Services. The draft Bill aims to regulate the possession, cultivation and use of cannabis by adults. The draft Bill, however, does not cater for the commercial opportunities presented by cannabis which could potentially stimulate South Africa’s economy and make up for the major tax budget deficit. One of the many inconsistencies of the draft Bill is that while it holds many potential commercial opportunities, the legal framework permits the members of Cannabis Clubs to operate. This is extremely problematic as it gives these clubs the ability to exclusively capitalise and monopolise the cultivation of cannabis. This legal framework potentially jeopardises the role of communities as it relegates the custodians of the land to the primary economic activity of farming, extraction and wage-labour.
The rising demand for cannabis and increasing normalisation surrounding its use have to some extent shifted international norms and the internal laws regulating cannabis in some countries. Where South Africa is concerned, the conditions of its cannabis legislation have several limitations. The framework of the bill overlooks the potential of commercial cannabis opportunities and the redress and empowerment effect they may have for South Africa’s economy in addressing inherited and persisting socio-economic issues, namely poverty and unemployment. Furthermore, given that the predominant holders of land in South Africa remain the white minority and the government, South Africa’s majority are severely disadvantaged as they will not benefit from the financial rewards of cannabis cultivation. Without a fundamental shift in the patterns of land ownership and roles within the value chain, the shifts in attitudes and regulatory accommodation of the cannabis economy may not fully realise this development potential. Moreover, the continued criminalisation of cannabis use in public and its distribution have done nothing to curtail cannabis smuggling across borders in Southern Africa.
Although the full potential of cannabis is unknown, key areas can be identified and quantified. Not only does cannabis possess medicinal properties, it also generates economic rewards, which if directed towards the many-crying social and economic needs, may facilitate the upliftment of local communities. Furthermore, cannabis in particular, hemp is a sustainable and ethical plant-based material which can be used to create a wide range of products including cosmetics, clothing, paper, food, building materials, biofuels and bioplastics. Although cannabis may still be illegal in many parts of the world, its health and economic benefits cannot be denied/ignored. With effective national and international regulatory mechanisms, coherent trade policies, sound legal regimes and substance education programmes, the use, cultivation and distribution of cannabis may facilitate social progress, as well as economic development. Furthermore, formal international recognition of the benefits presented by cannabis, may foster greater normalisation of cannabis use and diminish the criminalisation and condemnation of cannabis users and growers.
Tshegofatso Ramachela is a certified paralegal and has an undergraduate degree in International Studies, Political Sciences and History from the University of Pretoria. She is a humanitarian, an intersectional postcolonial feminist and an aspiring international development and peace worker, who hopes to one day be a Doctoral student. Tshegofatso is a permanent member of The Art of Politics writing staff.