South Africa’s Racist and Classist History of Cannabis Regulation

Cannabis is a plant that has existed for over 4,000 years with medicinal and spiritual uses. This knowledge and information have been gate kept and a narrative of only the worst people using cannabis has been pushed. This has not always been the case and is only a recent manifestation that took hold at the turn of the 20th century. As South Africa considers the Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill, this history is worth reconsidering.

Due to propaganda, cannabis has been viewed as a gateway to being clinically insane. Cannabis/hemp has been used for centuries, and in an attempt to further demonise the term “marijuana,” has been used to inspire images of Hispanic and black people using cannabis in the minds of the white public. Cannabis was thought to arouse bloodlust and cause superhuman strength. A church-funded 1936 film Reefer Madness, a horror that depicts the insanity and murderous rage that ensues from the effects of ‘marijuana.’

Harry J Anslinger, a widely known American racist of the 1900s and head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, held the view that minorities that made use of cannabis were a threat to pure white culture, particularly white women. He once said “Reefer makes darkies think that they are as good as white men.”

In America, cannabis regulation began in the early 1900s. Hemp was gaining popularity across the country, but this progress was stifled by the introduction of Anslinger’s Marijuana Tax Act, aimed at regulating the narcotic varieties of cannabis. Special taxes were paid by individuals who sold and possessed cannabis. Failure to do so resulted in jail time. Research debunking the alleged detrimental effects of cannabis already existed at the time.

Later, cannabis took on the stereotype of being the preferred drug of jazz singers, who were notably black, and other ‘low-life’ white people who would form part of the scene.

Given the influence that Western policy-making had in Africa, it is important to see its effects on South African policy-makers, even today.

Initial legislation banning cannabis was first introduced in 1870. In 1910, after South Africa was established as a union, cannabis was banned in broader South Africa but was allowed in the native homelands. This included the growing and distribution of cannabis. The intention was to keep cannabis and its impurities from white South Africans. When labour demands and urbanisation trends came to the fore, there was greater regulation of the immigration of black people into cities. Offenders with cannabis would be jailed or would face a fine of £100. In the 1950s, the fine was raised to £500. The initial legislation resulted in 5,000 arrests in 1930, whereas with the increased movement and policing of black people in urban areas this rose to nearly 25,000 arrests in 1950.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill, given the criminalisation of every aspect of criminal usage that it entails, is destined to repeat and propagate the deep-rooted racism and classism of cannabis regulations of previous years.[/perfectpullquote]

With the growth of Afrikaner nationalism in the 1950s, there was a focus on maintaining a pure Afrikaner people. This translated into removing any impurities that would challenge that, this included cannabis and its historical significance to minority groups. Under apartheid, the Native Affairs Department deployed into homelands to burn and destroy cannabis crops, resulting in violence and police brutality. Most of the crops in the area were grown by poor, often black women.

In 1948, before Apartheid formally began, given the increased cannabis seizures, the United Party government requested that an interdepartmental committee be convened to investigate Dagga abuse as a “special social problem.” A report was generated, and the government created squads to investigate and destroy operations with alleged cannabis cultivation.

In 1951, the South African government’s obsession with cannabis usage culminated in the  ‘Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on the Abuse Of Dagga’. A report that was largely rooted in pseudo science eventually resulted in South Africa ratifying the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Drugs. This resulted in the ‘Abuse of Dependence Producing Substances and Rehabilitation Centres Act of 1971’, this included the banning of cannabis across South Africa and included homelands. 77 000 individuals were imprisoned within two years of the act being passed, this mostly consisted of black men. This legislation included farmers, traders and created a presumption of guilt before innocence.

Such policies continued well into the 1980s and 1990s. In 1994, the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act was signed into law and included cannabis and its criminalisation which worsened the legacy of cannabis criminalisation from colonial rule and apartheid.

The Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill, given the criminalisation of every aspect of criminal usage that it entails, is destined to repeat and propagate the deep-rooted racism and classism of cannabis regulations of previous years.

The bill fails to consider cultures and groups such as traditional healers who make use of cannabis. Cannabis has a significant historical role in such communities. Growers in Pondoland in the Eastern Cape have grown cannabis for over 200 years. The over-regulation of commercialised cannabis removes this important cultural practice from communities. Such groups will continue to be targeted if the bill remains unchanged.

South African Health Products Regulatory Authority is expected to issue the licences for commercial growers. There are strict regulations and strict standards of infrastructure that farmers will be required to comply with before these are issued. Licences for practices that have existed for thousands of years. This licensing procedure is clearly intended to only benefit wealthy companies. The government states that it is intended to empower South Africans, yet this approach does not allow farmers to easily participate in the marketplace.

The bill is one that further pushes racist and classist views. It makes no consideration for the nearly 13 million homeless South Africans when it provides that cannabis may only be used in a private dwelling. It also raises privacy concerns, as homegrown cannabis requires leaf counting and weighing by the police. This inherently criminalises the usage of cannabis by creating draconian regulations. As it stands, this multi-billion rand industry has the potential to alleviate poverty for millions of South Africans, but reduces trade to altruism and allows for the growth of the black market.

Mukundi Budeli is a BA Law student at the University of Witwatersrand. She is a legal associate at the Free Market Foundation. The views expressed in the article are the author’s, and not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

Photo credit Austrian National Library on Unsplash.