S.Africa's top court legalises personal, private cannabis use

Michelle GUMEDE
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'Legalise weed': Cannabis supporters demonstrated to demand legalisation

South Africa's top court ruled Tuesday that private, personal cannabis use was legal in a landmark case that pit law enforcement agencies against marijuana advocates and the judiciary.

Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, delivering the Johannesburg-based Constitutional Court's unanimous verdict, declared the law banning marijuana use in private by adults "unconstitutional and therefore invalid".

"It will not be a criminal offence for an adult person to use or be in possession of cannabis in private for his or her personal consumption," he said, reading the ruling to cheers from the public gallery.

The court also ordered parliament to draft new laws within 24 months to reflect the order.

Outside, pro-cannabis campaigners lit pipes and rolled joints to celebrate the news, filling the air with the distinctive scent of marijuana.

"I'm happy I won't be getting any more criminal records for possession," Ruaan Wilson, a 29-year-old wearing shorts and sunglasses, told AFP before pausing for a puff.

"Now we can get police to focus on real drugs and thugs," he added.

A court in the Western Cape had ruled in March 2017 that a ban on cannabis use by adults at home was unconstitutional, a move that effectively decriminalised it in the province, which includes Cape Town.

But the ministers of justice, police, health and trade challenged that finding, arguing that there was "objective proof of the harmful effects of cannabis."

Tuesday's ruling will not decriminalise the use of the drug in public nor the offences of supplying or dealing -- but cultivation for personal, private use will no longer be illegal for adults.

- 'We are free now' -

Previously, possessing, growing or using marijuana for personal use, even in small quantities, exposed users to fines of several thousand rand (hundreds of dollars) as well as jail time.

Although custodial sentences were rare, penalties for selling the plant were far higher.

Three cannabis users who had faced prosecution for using the drug argued in the Constitutional Court that the prohibition "intrudes unjustifiably into their private spheres".

Activists clutching banners reading "Weed are free now" and Rastafari flags gathered outside the court in central Johannesburg.

Other boards read "Free the weed", and "Legalise weed, end economic depression #weedislife".

Some activists also called for cannabis to be decriminalised for public use.

"It's not enough, we also have privacy in person, as we walk in a public space, therefore we should be allowed to carry cannabis in public," said Jeremy Acton, leader of the Dagga Party in South Africa which advocates for the rights of cannabis users.

Previous court hearings on the emotive issue have drawn protests by those opposed to legalising cannabis, as well as by those in favour of decriminalisation.

Use of cannabis and medicinal marijuana has gained popularity in many parts of the world to ease suffering from cancer, glaucoma, HIV and AIDS, and other serious health conditions.

- 'Able to develop the plant' -

But opponents fear crime connected to drug abuse and the risk of users migrating to harder drugs.

"The ruling contradicts the efforts of government and the South African society to deal with drug addiction and crime in our country," said Kenneth Meshoe, leader of the opposition African Christian Democratic Party, in a statement.

The country's Medical Research Council has already launched trials to help guarantee quality, consistency and standards, according to local media.

"We have used cannabis to treat anxiety, colic in children and as an antiseptic in secret for many years," said Phephsile Maseko of the Traditional Healers Organisation. "Now we will be able to develop the plant even further."

The agriculture ministry said in a statement that it noted the ruling, adding that the decision by some US states to legalise the drug showed "a huge potential for job creation".

Globally, the legal status of cannabis varies widely. In Portugal, for example, possession and use is largely decriminalised, while users in Saudi Arabia face the death penalty.

The breakthrough for South African cannabis users came just a day after US soft drinks giant Coca-Cola confirmed it was studying the use of a key ingredient in marijuana to make "wellness beverages".