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Remembering Other Places Exist: South Africa (The History of Cannabis in South Africa)

Cannabis in South Africa

If you asked me to name all of the things I knew about South Africa off of the top of my head before I began this series, I could have counted it all on one hand. I knew that South Africa is - appropriately - located at the very southern tip of Africa and that Trevor Noah is from there. Apartheid was something I was aware of but notably ignorant about. If we’re being completely honest, I probably learned a lot about it from the 20-year-old Disney Channel movie “The Color of Friendship'' and had the privilege to promptly forget everything I had just learned. Now I am an adult with unfettered access to the internet and the desire to stuff my brain with knowledge, especially if it pertains to cannabis and cannabis history, so let’s see what’s going on in South Africa. 

History of Cannabis in South Africa

It’s believed that the prehistoric cannabis plant first arrived on the African continent from southern Asia sometime before 1000 BCE, though it would be some time still before cannabis would reach South Africa. Once cannabis arrived from its “evolutionary homeland” in southern Asia it was dispersed throughout the continent of Africa via trade between the indigenous populations, mostly after the 1500s, and primarily used as a smoked substance. According to several of the sources I found, smoking pipes were “unequivocally invented in sub-Saharan Africa,” with early evidence of cannabis residue found in a fourteenth century water-pipe bowl discovered in Ethiopia. 

In South Africa, the earliest written evidence we have comes from Dutch navigator and colonial administrator for the Dutch East India Company Jan van Riebeeck. In his journal he refers to cannabis as “daccha”, what most have come to agree is a misspelling of the indigenous Khoekhoen word “dacha”, and which has been adopted into the modern Afrikaans word “dagga” that is often used to refer to cannabis in South Africa. Though van Riebeeck may be able to take credit for the first written record, there was already widespread trade and use of cannabis throughout Africa as a whole and among the Khoekhoen, Sān and Basotho people of southern Africa. Though cannabis was used for a variety of the reasons we’ve come to expect people to grow and use cannabis for, it was “principally valued as a smoked drug.”

Cannabis in South Africa

After van Riebeeck landed in what we would later come to know as South Africa in the 1650s, the Dutch East India Company attempted to monopolize the cannabis market in what they had established as the Dutch Cape Colony by outlawing settlers from cultivating cannabis in 1680. While we only have written proof from the 1600s, what I gathered from my sources is that cannabis had naturally been adopted in the ethnobotanical practices of the various indigenous peoples of Africa. By the time the Dutch arrived and tried to take over the market - surprising no one - the wild availability and trade with the local indigenous groups made it nearly impossible and the ban on cultivation was lifted in 1700. 

About one hundred and fifty years later, the British established the Colony of Natal and started bringing in Indian indentured labor. They brought knowledge of hashish and their own culture of cannabis consumption which blended with the existing local traditions and, frankly, freaked out the European colonizers. This resulted in an 1870 law that prohibited “the smoking, use, or possession by and the sale, barter, or gift to” any part of the cannabis or hemp plant to any indentured Indian person in the colony. There is documentation of cannabis gardens existing in what is now South Africa in the eighteenth century as well as evidence of the collection of “feral” plants. 

During the colonization of southern Africa, European opportunists were quick to try and snatch up wealth from colonized territory by establishing a tax on preexisting cannabis markets or exporting cannabis to the western pharmaceutical market. Unfortunately, the European colonizers didn’t care much for maintaining a level of agricultural productivity nor did they “build upon indigenous capabilities” and these ventures would ultimately fail. By the early 1900s, some colonies had regulated cannabis markets while others were engaging in very public marketplace transactions. 

Recent History & Modern Regulation 

As is sadly so commonplace in cannabis history, what comes next is a wave of moral panic combined with its old friend, racism. In 1921 began the more “serious signs of moral panic focusing around dagga” with a particular fear of the “‘camaraderie’ which led some to lay aside race and other prejudices with regard to fellow addicts”. In 1922 an amended Customs and Excises Duty Act criminalized the use, possession, cultivation and sale of “habit forming drugs”, which included cannabis. In these cases, the burden of proof of innocence lies with the person accused of a cannabis crime and the argument has been made that this was intended to target black people. In cases of regulations that concerned alcohol, the burden of proof lay with the accuser. 

In 1923 Secretary to the Prime Minister J. C. Van Tyen expressed that South Africa wished for dagga to be included on the list of prohibited substances at the Fifth Session of the League of Nations Advisory Committee on Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs. Until then, every other iteration of this committee had pretty much been concerned with opium, coca and their derivatives, but in 1925 cannabis was internationally outlawed by this League of Nations Committee. 

Cannabis was criminalized in South Africa in 1928 by the Medical, Dental and Pharmacy Act that prohibited the production, use or sale of “habit forming drugs”. Article 69 of the Act declared that:

No person shall smoke, or use, or shall import, manufacture, sell or supply, or possess for purpose of sale or supply to any person, any pipe, receptacle, or appliance for smoking opium, Indian hemp, or dagga or intsangu…”

Over the next almost one hundred years, South Africa would see cannabis regulations increase in strictness and severity, until the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act of 1992. Under this act, people found in possession of more than 115 grams of cannabis were “presumed to be guilty of dealing”. Fortunately, after the adoption of the interim constitution of South Africa, the South African courts found this to be unconstitutional, though this wasn’t until 1994. 

Cannabis in South Africa

In 2018 a ruling by South Africa’s constitutional court deemed the prohibition of adult use cannabis to be unlawful and gave the Parliament of South Africa two years to make the necessary changes to the laws. In 2020 the Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill was introduced to codify the legislation legalizing cannabis in South Africa. Law makers there have made it clear that this bill is intended to legalize the use of cannabis by private citizens, in private, but you will not be able to buy it or sell it. According to the bill, adults may “use or possess cannabis”, and if I’m reading the legalese correctly it seems as though you could give another adult cannabis for private use in a private place, “without exchange of consideration” - basically without exchanging anything of value ie. a “sale”. 

Though this bill was introduced in 2020 it was only approved by the National Assembly about a month ago, and is still a few steps away from the legalization reforms being enacted, but South African officials seem to be eager to enter the global cannabis market. President Cyril Ramaphosa has said that he wishes to formalize the South African cannabis industry, “seeking to grow both production and export” and stating that they could see the creation of over 100,000 jobs.


As I continue to do this series there are a number of similarities I’ve noticed, regardless of where in the world I find myself researching. Cannabis becomes a part of the culture. It adapts to the unique aspects of the region. It’s used for spiritual, medicinal, recreational and industrial reasons until eventually “western” or European “morals” and “respectabilities” smash their way in. Restrictions and regulations begin and in some cases, never end. 

I’ve found that this cannabis history is very different and very the same all at once, which is reminiscent of cannabis itself. It has thousands upon thousands of varieties, flavor profiles, and chemical makeups. Millions upon millions of people have differing experiences or reasons for using and loving cannabis. I’m going to go ahead and take the leap and call us a “global cannabis community”. Sure, it may be the one thing we have in common, but we have one thing in common with so many people all over the globe and I think that’s a really beautiful thing.


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