February, South Africa’s 420—celebrating those who fought for cannabis

February, South Africa's 420—celebrating those who fought for cannabis
While five high school learners from California in the United States get to lay claim to 420's creation, South African cannabis users proudly have a significant month dedicated to dagga and its historical journey powered by dedicated people.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Commandeering a loyal and diverse following worldwide, with an ever-growing community all driving for its ultimate freedom, cannabis has rapidly moved from illegal plant to an industry in the making. 

For the uninitiated, one of the most iconic days in cannabis culture is 4 April, more commonly known as 420, 4:20, or 4/20 (pronounced four-twenty). In cannabis culture, this is a form of slang used for the substance’s consumption while also referring to cannabis-oriented celebrations taking place annually on the day.

While five high school learners from California in the United States get to lay claim to 420’s creation, South African cannabis users proudly have a significant month dedicated to dagga and its historical journey powered by dedicated people.

Throughout our country’s history, numerous attempts have been made to change people’s perspectives on marijuana. But it is only over the past two decades traction has been made in changing legislation and the way South Africans view cannabis and its users.

When looking at South Africa’s month of love for the plant (February) and those who changed its fate, the Newcastillian – Online News now looks at how it all began. 

It all starts with the establishment of the Dagga Party of South Africa. Founded in February 2009 by Jeremy Acton, who remains the party’s leader, the political party was established to allow voters who support dagga’s legalisation to have representation in elections. Additionally, the party feels cannabis users should have the same rights as people who use tobacco and alcohol. However, the Dagga Party failed to register with the Independent Electoral Commission to contest the 2014 or 2019 South African general elections as it could not raise the required R200 000 registration fee. 

Next, in a twist of fate came South Africa’s iconic #DaggaCouple, comprising of Julian Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke. In August 2010, their property was raided, and they were arrested on charges of possessing and dealing in cannabis. This lead to them in February 2011, arguing before a magistrate’s court, explaining they had a “human right to ingest anything” they chose, provided it did not harm them and applied for leave to make their case before the Constitutional Court. Frustratingly, their case was struck from the court roll, pending the result of their constitutional challenge of the legality of cannabis prohibition.

Fast forward to February 2014, when the legislation surrounding cannabis took a serious turn, with the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) getting involved, and more specifically, Dr Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, who introduced the Medical Innovations Bill. If accepted, this Bill would legalise cannabis for medical treatment and industrial use.

Under the proposed Bill, with the patient’s informed consent, doctors could administer unproven but harmless cancer treatments such as cannabis if other treatments are not efficacious; informed consent will shield doctors from common law liability and the requirements of their medical profession in such circumstances. Such was his faith in cannabis for medicinal reasons; when Dr Oriani-Ambrosini was diagnosed with lung cancer, he underwent cannabinoid treatment in the last months leading to his death. While Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Health rejected Oriani-Ambrosini’s Bill in November 2017, his celebrated legacy lives on today throughout the month of February.

But why should Dr Oriani-Ambrosini be singled out as there have been many who have fought to “free the leaf” over the years? For starters, years before introducing his cannabis Bill, Dr Oriani-Ambrosini helped build the New South Africa and the freedoms we now enjoy. From being the legal advisor to the IFP, who, in December 1990, was at the opening of CODESA, the two-year-long South African constitutional negotiations from apartheid to democracy. This coupled with him drafting the Constitution of KwaZulu-Natal, which was unanimously adopted by the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly, as the constitution of a member state of a federation to be formed in the national negotiation process. This was the first detailed constitutional draft or proposal in the South African constitution-making process. 

It was a process that helped advance civil liberties such as abortion, gay rights, and a ban on the death penalty. While his Medical Innovations Bill was initially rejected, it helped pave the way for others to continue fighting outdated legislation. 

And when looking at the story that followed, three remarkable incidents stand out.

  • On 18 September 2018, the South African Constitutional Court decriminalised the use and cultivation of cannabis in a private space.
  • During the course of 2020, Cabinet approved the submission to Parliament of the Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill of 2020 for processing. This Bill regulates the use and possession of cannabis and the cultivation of cannabis plants by adults for personal use. It also provides the limit for the quantity of cannabis which may be possessed by an adult and criminalises the smoking of cannabis in public places. 
  • Cannabis can now also be used for medicinal purposes. The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) explains, “In terms of Sections 21 of the Medicines Act, authorised practitioners can apply to SAHPRA for permission to access and prescribe unregistered medicines when intended to treat individual patients. Cannabis-containing products intended for medicinal purposes may thus be made available, in exceptional circumstances, to specific patients under medical supervision. Authorisation is dependent on the submission of an appropriate dosage regimen, an acceptable justification for the proposed use, and regular reporting to SAHPRA.” While now legal for medicinal purpose, there is an extensive process to be followed before one receives the necessary licensing to produce medicinal cannabis. 

However, with CBD (an active compound in cannabis) being made legal, some say the plant is now past halfway to the finish line in terms of legalisation. With people, especially those who once had an obscured, outdated view of the plant, now able to experience an element of cannabis through a range of legal products, from CBD infused teas to oils and even beer—it would appear that South Africa has indeed evolved its outlook on this once outlawed plant. 

Be sure you don’t miss out on the celebrations throughout February, remembering those who dared to fight for your right to legally light up a joint as you sit reading this at home. 

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