Johannesburg’s worst-kept secret looks like any other suburban bar, with a bartender who has nothing unusual to offer. Then someone emerges from the back to present the “other menu.” There, marijuana—or “dagga,” in Afrikaans slang—is listed alongside beer and cider. Customers in business suits hand over a few hundred rand, choose from the selection of strains and edibles, and relax. Shortly thereafter, a “special” rainbow rice crispy treat shows up unceremoniously, wrapped in colorful plastic like a convenience store snack. Clouds of smoke drift over the pool tables. Bob Marley plays from the jukebox. Everything appears safe, casual, and aboveboard.
But the Amsterdam vibes are deceiving. Johannesburg’s funky new drug scene actually exists in a precarious legal gray zone.
Despite reports last year that South Africa’s Constitutional Court had decriminalized marijuana, that ruling only protects adults who “use or cultivate or possess cannabis in private for [their] personal consumption.” Selling weed or consuming it in public remains illegal. And just as in the U.S. and elsewhere, partial decriminalization tends to benefit some groups of people more than others.
“The bottom line is: If you’re growing cannabis out of sight and out of smell, then there is no problem,” says Julian Stobbs, 59, the director of social activism for the marijuana legalization nonprofit Fields of Green for All. “But that excludes anyone who doesn’t have land or privacy. What if you’re in a fourth-floor flat? What if you don’t have a backyard? What if you’re living in a township with six other families?”
Stobbs points out that the new ruling is least likely to benefit black South Africans. Although they make up 79 percent of the population, they directly own just 1.2 percent of rural land and 7 percent of formally registered property in towns and cities. Complying with the law essentially requires being a property owner, and most black South Africans are tenants.
Johannesburg’s libertarian mayor, Herman Mashaba, is a businessman and self-described “capitalist crusader.” As former chairman of the Free Market Foundation, Mashaba might seem a likely candidate to focus on the business potential of full legalization—but there’s a catch. To win leadership of South Africa’s largest city, he had to form a tense coalition between his party, the Democratic Alliance (D.A.), and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), an “anti-capitalist” party that has called for a ban on liquor advertising and announced its desire to make provinces under its jurisdiction “drug-free.” So when Mashaba talks about drugs, he rides the fence.
“The D.A. believes the [2018 Constitutional Court] judgment will go a long way in unclogging the criminal justice system, which is often overburdened with cases of persons found in possession of or consuming cannabis in their personal capacity,” he says. “We are, however, concerned that the public is not adequately educated on the implications of the judgment and that people do not recognize that the possession and/or consumption of cannabis in public remains a criminal offense.”
There’s more bad news: While South Africa’s pro-cannabis Dagga Party raised enough money to participate in the May 2019 national elections, it missed the deadline to transfer funds due to a bank error and will not be on the ballot.
“We failed (so far) as a movement to become active in political discourse within the precincts that determine policy direction and decision-making for South Africa’s future,” wrote leader Jeremy Acton in a statement on the Dagga Party’s website. “Let’s make a promise to ourselves that we are walking together towards a South Africa that WILL give the Cannabis resource to the future of our Children.”