Simon Howell
Simon Howell

Has the legalisation of cannabis finally become a reality?

The festive season has indeed been a happy one for supporters of the legalisation of cannabis. Uruguay has become the first state to make the production, distribution and consumption of cannabis entirely legal. In the US, home to the “war on drugs”, the states of Colorado and Washington State have followed suit, putting in place the regulatory systems needed for the production, distribution and consumption of cannabis by private citizens. Even the city of New York has begun authorising the use of medical marijuana. My Facebook page has been alight with overtures of joy. Champagne has been drunk and bongs lit. After all, it seems that the legalisation of cannabis has finally reached a tipping point; if even North America is jumping on the legalisation bandwagon, it shouldn’t be long before the whole world is. Right?

These are indeed great strides in the legalisation movement, strides that could have scarcely been thought practically possible just a decade ago. And while I don’t want to put a damper on the celebrations, I do want to reflect critically on these achievements. The devil, they say, is in the fine print. Unfortunately it is this fine print that will have a direct bearing on legalisation efforts in South Africa. Beyond the hyperbole of the likes of the Dagga Couple and others, the steps taken by both Colorado and Washington State are complex, detailed, and costly — three things South Africa would find very difficult to translate as a useful regulatory framework for the legalisation of cannabis in the country.

Firstly, while both states are legalising the consumption of cannabis, there are some fundamental differences operating behind the scenes. Colorado, for instance, requires that anyone who sells cannabis to have also been a producer and distributor — known as vertical integration — and to have lived in the state for at least two years. This prevents cannabis grown in Colorado from moving across borders while also weeding out fly-by-night suppliers. Washington state, on the other hand, has chosen to impose a 75% tax mark-up on the produce (levied through three separate 25% charges), while also capping state production at 80 metric tonnes a year (not a lot in cannabis terms). Both regulatory frameworks are extremely strict, and have not limited the powers of the Federal government and DEA — both will still be extremely active.

Both of these systems rely on stringent and effective regulation. Both systems tax and control the entire process, both require third-party testing and both limit the sale of and the amount of cannabis that can be carried by a single person. The regulatory word of the moment is “seed-to-sale”. Without these measures, the Federal government would have never allowed legalisation to occur. Indeed, if the states do not effectively regulate the legalisation process, the Federal government will eagerly reassert its authority over the matter. And herein lies the problem. The South African government (excluding SARS) is unfortunately not very good at regulating anything. From immigration to TV licenses, the government tries its best but is not cut out for the individual and micro-regulatory practices that will be necessary to effectively regulate the production, distribution and consumption of cannabis.

There is also one other major consideration at play here: cannabis does not grow at commercially viable levels in either Colorado or Washington State. The plants have to be cultivated using hydroponic methods in brightly lit, climatically controlled indoor spaces. This makes regulation possible as each plant can be tagged from its germination to harvesting. The same, however, cannot be said for Southern Africa where the plant grows, literally, like a weed. Regulating the production and distribution of the plant is, without prior knowledge of the exact places it is being cultivated, nigh on impossible. Regulation of the level employed by both Colorado and Washington State is, furthermore, extremely expensive. Many of the necessary regulatory systems already exist in these states and are simply being adapted. South Africa, however, would have to create, from scratch, a comprehensive regulatory service. Considering the generally conservative nature of South African society, the costs involved in setting up such a service would soon be shot down by the public. After all, surely the government should be spending money of basic education services rather than implementing an extensive and ultimately unnecessary regulatory service to control the production, distribution, and use of cannabis?

Pardon my pessimism then, but I am not sure how much South African supporters of legalisation have to celebrate. The legalisation of cannabis in Colorado and Washington State does represent a giant leap forward in the larger drugs discourse. South Africa, however, lacks both the resources and ability to implement such complex regulatory systems. Might there be other systems? The bong will have to remain unlit, I am afraid, at least for a few more years.

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    • Foom

      If we can regulate alcohol, we can regulate cannabis.

    • Colonist Scumbag

      “The bong will have to remain unlit, I am afraid, at least for a few more years.”
      Not in my house!

      But with regards to the article, i agree that SA is probably a few years away from any meaningful action with regards to the travesty that is cannabis prohibition. But what scares me is that everyone is fully aware that they have been lied to about the effects of cannabis consumption: it is known that it does not cause brain damage, the gateway theory is a load of bull, causing schizophrenia is a load of twaddle, and that dagga is indeed safer to use than Aspirin.

      Why then do we even need to have a conversation regarding its legality? What justification is there for its prohibition? And how does a government tell it’s citizenry that a plant, that has never caused a death in the history of man, is illegal for them to possess or consume? Alcohol and Tobacco kill millions every year… Legal.

      We know all the above, yet still tolerate institutions like SANCA with their blatant lies and horrible statistics, check the link:

      This shouldn’t be a conversation to be had, the facts stack up overwhelmingly against prohibtion, and that is why this topic doesnt really affect myself and stoners i know. We’ve been smoking, regardless of harrassment, and will continue to do so. Legality be damned.

      *Of course then there are the millions of people who could have still been here today if medical cannabis, in the very least, was…

    • Paul Bluewater

      The war on drugs is a colossal failure, anyone can get anything anywhere always, weed is harmless compared to alcohol and tobacco never mind coke and heroin, being illegal it is sold with and introduces hard drugs, being illegal it attracts criminals guns money and violence, being illegal whole generations of young people are turned into hard criminals, its continued illegality is ludicrous, which is why the USA et al is moving towards normalization, we could cement our tourism advantage through decriminalization , and 30% of the population smoke it regularly and some of those who don’t really should to benefit from it’s wisdom, it’s the healing of the nation, Viva 420 Viva!

    • We need a more solid, serious analysis!

      “Considering the generally conservative nature of South African society, the costs involved in setting up such a service would soon be shot down by the public.”

      Would this not be paid for by taxation on the trade in cannabis? It would have to, to make it appealing. To be successful it should be taxed at a level where SARS and thus government scores and yet keeping it low enough not to stimulate the illegal market.

      I am missing a discussion around employment created in a country like South Africa viz-a-viz various legalization regimes. A more in-depth analysis of the Uruguayan situation would also be welcome, and whether that is more or less applicable to the SA scenario.

    • Chris Naden

      It’s worth noting that Colorado, Washington, and Uruguay also *all* permit personal growth of a regulated number of plants for personal use.

      Regulating *sale* is not the same thing as regulating the *plant*. Your point about hydroponics grows and how different the experience would be in .za is actually quite simply wrong; quite a lot of people I know personally in Colorado grow their stock outdoor in their garden.

      .za could regulate the *sale* of cannabis much more easily than the US, precisely because the *sale* of cannabis would become so very rare outside of large cities. Most people in the country who wanted some would simply grow it.

      So my question to you is this: is that a radically different state of affairs to now? Yes; because less South Africans of colour would be in jail.

    • Alyn

      Sad news.
      Guess we’ll all have to wait a few more years before any of us try it…

    • Alexander Dowding

      We have the expertise and knowledge locally to create a booming legal and regulated cannabis industry in this country.

      The rest of the world are waking up to the many and varied benefits of cannabis legalization.
      A panel of Moroccan MPs are already looking into the benefits of legalizing cannabis and hashish production in the Rif Valley region of their country. Nigeria will not be far behind.
      Can South Africa really afford NOT too jump on the bandwagon too?
      For me personally it is a no-brainer that we also consider softening our laws on cannabis.

      I work with the Dagga Couple and have seen for myself just how much support they have garnered and witnessed from so many people the length and breadth of our country since their campaign began over two years ago.

      Change is coming, and sooner than many of us think or realize.

    • CHris

      Simon great article you have put together. A little pessimistic as you say. I think with how many US states and countries are looking at the benefits and decriminalisation of cannabis, South Africa has to jump on teh bandwagon. We have been researching and testing hemp for 1.5 decades, to this date its proven fruitless. Millions been blown, a potential genetic law suite and no real jobs created.
      With the hunger for money of our corrupt government and their fingers in the pie of cannabis, why would they want to legalise when its fulling up jails nicely at a tax payers cost. I think the most important thing is re-legalisation aswell as decriminalise for home growers, e.g stop the abuse of personal consumption. I dont believe the government or corporates should have anything to do with cannabis, except for protecting soeciety against abuse and children. Perhaps regulate it like tobacco, tax it as heavy as they want, but let people also embrace the life of this plant. They are the ones who have not lit a joint, thrown a century of lies at cannabis. I think if they dont change thier minds soon, it should become a human rights issue with all the trouble it causes from corruption to black markets. Anyway free the weed, its something that is going to happen wether they like it or not.

    • Simon Howell

      @Chris Naden: Valid points. Just one point – I agree your friends will be able to grow cannabis in the states. That’s why I was very careful to talk specifically about viable commercial levels. Growing a few plants for personal consumption and growing a crop for commercial cultivation are very different ball games.

    • The Praetor

      Its not that difficult…grant licenses to certain candidates for planting the crops, and maintain the laws in place for illegal cultivation and sale, exactly as is done with alcolhol.

      The crops can then be sold to licensed distributors, and taxes levied on the farmers and distributors.

      The Praetor

    • Malcolm Kyle

      The following text is taken directly from the US government’s National Cancer Institute website:


      One study in mice and rats suggested that cannabinoids may have a protective effect against the development of certain types of tumors. During this 2-year study, groups of mice and rats were given various doses of THC by gavage. A dose-related decrease in the incidence of hepatic adenoma tumors and hepatocellular carcinoma was observed in the mice. Decreased incidences of benign tumors (polyps and adenomas) in other organs (mammary gland, uterus, pituitary, testis, and pancreas) were also noted in the rats. In another study, delta-9-THC, delta-8-THC, and cannabinol were found to inhibit the growth of Lewis lung adenocarcinoma cells in vitro and in vivo. In addition, other tumors have been shown to be sensitive to cannabinoid-induced growth inhibition.

      Cannabinoids may cause antitumor effects by various mechanisms, including induction of cell death, inhibition of cell growth, and inhibition of tumor angiogenesis and metastasis. Cannabinoids appear to kill tumor cells but do not affect their nontransformed counterparts and may even protect them from cell death. These compounds have been shown to induce apoptosis in glioma cells in culture and induce regression of glioma tumors in mice and rats.

    • china

      Legalized or not we won’t stop smoking the thing maan.

    • Will

      A well written and to the point article.

      I don’t think that the local movement for legalisation will attempt to use a cookie cutter approach to local legislation and regulation. We will of course need to apply a realistic local model that has benefited from the lessons learnt by other nations.

      It’s worth noting though that no matter which we we look at the issue, it is first and foremost a human rights issue.
      We’ve had a century of prohibition which has not bowed out in the face of it’s many failures and counter-productivity.
      Yes, there will be growing pains in SA with legal cannabis. But surely an attempt at regulation seems more feasible than continuing to attempt to criminalise every user.

      Perhaps it is best to weigh the costs of prohibition before decrying the ability of a legal regulated market in SA, here’s and article regarding the latest figures on SA’s futile war against dagga.

    • K Solomon

      Firstly, if ‘regulation’ were to be fair and honest, I trust that 95% of people would gladly participate in such regulations… but, the big farmers and the corporate farmers have expressed interest in becoming commercial growers too and they do not want you and I to grow our own, the corporates want us to buy their dagga.
      When a rural family can provide and prosper, then independence is gained and this is always seen as a threat to the state.
      ‘Stoned’ people tend to relax and communicate easily and ‘stoned’ people are less inclined to respond to fear motivation, this is a big threat to the ‘divide and rule’ template, the state doesn’t want clever, calm, friendly and independent citizens.
      Why was SA the first country to criminalize dagga?
      Only when every other country has legal dagga, then, we will see the apartheid dagga laws die – Such is the backward and cowardly way of our ruling government, both DA and the ANC are spineless in regards to drug policy.

    • bloggs

      I think the SA Government are all using it maan….we can see the ‘beneficial’ effects of this all around us.

      It just seems a bit strange that smoking just one spliff will allow it to be detected by a blood test six weeks later?

      I have heard that traffic departments in SA will soon be testing drivers for usage of substances other than alcohol. ‘Soon’ was not defined, neither were the substances, so you guys can relax for a few years maan. But, if they ever get this up & running, and cannabis is included, the SA mini-bus ‘taxi industry’ will grind to a halt.

      Gosh, what a thought……

      As to the ‘weed’ and whether it is harmless, or does one not a bit of good, the jury is out.

      Pass the spliff maan….and dream on

    • J.J.

      @ Malcolm Kyle #

      All good and well, but cannabis has some well proven negative effects on mental health, in some cases. It’s not for everyone and it’s not good for everyone, regardless of some benefits as you stated.

      So, where there may some benefits in some cases on the one hand, there are also negative effects and potential side-effect on the other hand…. (in other cases. )

    • Momma Cyndi

      J.J. #

      same can be said for antibiotics, aspirin, codeine, iodine, shellfish, peanuts, milk, sugar, salt, water, soap …… the list is endless. Banning stuff doesn’t prevent it from being there, it just makes it a cash-cow for criminals

    • J.J.

      @ Momma Cyndi #

      True, but none of those that you mention make for an altered state of mind… and none of those could potentially bring on symptoms of depression or schizophrenia.

      “There is growing evidence that people with serious mental illness, including depression and psychosis, are more likely to use cannabis or have used it for long periods of time in the past.”

      “Three major studies followed large numbers of people over several years, and showed that those people who use cannabis have a higher than average risk of developing schizophrenia.”


      You may as well have thrown in fluoride from toothpaste into your comparison. Cannabis should rather be compared with alcohol, although alcohol is probably potentially even more lethal (alcoholism and related illnesses).

      I don’t disagree that legalisation and regulation would prove more effective than banning it altogether, but at the same time people should be well-informed and well aware about the risks involved using it. Once legalised much more people than usual would try it out, since a fairly large proportion of society is risk-averse when it comes to using illegal substances. Sspecially younger people would have easier access to it).

      A lot of people have this romantic image (and subjective experience) of the weed as if it’s going to bring peace, love, harmony and health to world…

    • eric

      As a resident of Washington state and a recent visitor to SA, I think there are more common grounds of legalization than the author reports. Unlike Uruagay, Washington and Colorado legalizations were popular uprisings, voted in by direct citizen vote on the ballots, not by the legislatures and are the forefront of a rising tide of frustration with a political process that continued to play ball with the status quo. SA taught the world that the groundswell of progress cannot be denied by a government paralyzed by fear. Lead or get out of the way. None one I know of in the US involved in legalization ever,ever dreamed in our lifetime we would see this day. Do not say someday, ask why that day is not today.

    • Alexander Dowding

      J.J. – the cannabis-psychosis-schizophrenia relationship is tenuous and uncertain at best.

      The largest study of its kind ever conducted on the relationship between cannabis use and schizophrenia was carried out by researchers at the University of Keele in the UK.

      My friend Clark French of NORML UK explains this study better in his recent interview on Sky News.

    • Alexander Dowding

      Oh and this article is definitely worth a read. South Africa is falling behind. Even our neighbors to the north i.e. Zimbabwe are considering legalization of cannabis.

    • J.J.

      I’ll just add that Uruguay stated that they are legalising it is “an experiment” to see if indeed that is more effective in controlling and regulating it, but if it should prove to be less effective or even prove to cause more social ills and problems, they’ll revoke those laws. So a lot of countries will be observing very closely to see the results and outcome; rather than this heralding “a new ear of blanket legalisation and de-regulation of cannabis worldwide…

    • J.J.

      @ Alexander Dowding #

      Psychosis and schizophrenia aside, when using it the effects are either:
      (cited from previous source)


      A ‘high’ – a sense of relaxation, happiness, sleepiness, colours appear more intense, music sounds better.


      Around 1 in 10 cannabis users have unpleasant experiences, including confusion, hallucinations, anxiety and paranoia.”

      Those are SERIOUS side effects (even if in your opinion they may not be) and 1 in 10 is a very high ratio.

      I have come across multiple cannabis users in my lifetime who have had those side effects and although some brushed it off as a “temporary hazard”, many of those people had those effects 30-50% of the time.

      Unlike alcohol (moderate use) where the side effects afterwards tend to be a short-term hangover, after which one recovers fully, anxiety and paranoia can be prolonged after the come down from being high/stoned, even if such persons would already have a predisposition to anxiety and potentially paranoia, but elevated paranoia being enhanced by cannabis use is a highly unsettling and potentially debilitating psychological experience.

      At the end of the day it’s up to “the user” to judge the potential risks involved, but it’s best to state what they are (in light of and despite the apparent lack of agreement in the scientific community).

    • Momma Cyndi


      You are now talking ‘chicken and egg’.
      Is foetal alcohol syndrome endemic in the poor because they are drinking alcohol or is it caused by having a crappy life that uses alcohol as an escape? Do people with psychosis use weed to self medicate or does weed make them psychotic?

      Anything and everything that you introduce into your body has a chemical reaction within your body. Different chemicals in different combinations create different reactions. The problem with the attempted desalinisation of weed is that the baby was thrown out with the bath water. Look up Charlotte’s Web Marijuana or the many many other medicinal uses throughout the ages. By naming it as some kind of ‘evil’, mankind lost the entire opportunity to harness anything good from it.

      In countries, where certain drugs have been decriminalised, the usage has actually dropped in all types of drug abuse. The use of ‘other’ ingredients (which can cause addiction) is also taken out of the equations – you will be surprised at what dealers put into stash!

    • Momma Cyndi

      darn predictive text!
      *demonisation !!

    • J.J.

      It’s best to know the facts – this was not as popular a decision in Uruguay as people may think:


      “…But the legalization move was opposed by most Uruguayans, according to polling data. An August survey by Cifra/Gonzalez Raga & Associates found 61% of respondents against the legalization measure and 28% for it, Bloomberg reported.

      During the lengthy debate that preceded the vote, teachers, psychologists, pharmacists and opposition lawmakers urged the Senate to defeat the bill.

      Uruguay, a country of 3.3 million with relatively low crime rates, could see a rise in the consumption of marijuana and other drugs as a result of the legalization, opponents told the lawmakers, to no avail.”


    • J.J.

      Let me just clarify one of my previous points: “At the end of the day it’s up to “the user” to judge the potential risks involved, but it’s best to state what they are (in light of and despite the apparent lack of agreement in the scientific community).”

      …and despite the fact that it IS (still) illegal in South Africa and “users” (on the streets) could get locked up – as we saw during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa (in Cape Town specifically).

      Also, cannabis could trigger symptoms in predispositioned people who are not aware that they are predispositioned to anxiety or paranoia (or depression or arguably schizophrenia).

      It’s no wonder teachers and psychologists were against it – they know the actual (potential or real) negative effects in society.

    • TonyS

      I find the descriptions of dagga and its effects somewhat starry-eyed: I can chain smoke cigarettes all day and still be in full control of the car I’m driving – the same cannot be said of dagga smokers.
      In my matric class of around 30, only three of us did not smoke dagga. Seeing the state of pupils after they’d been out to farms where dagga was secretly grown among the other crops was insightful into the dangers of smoking dagga – they were bombed out of their minds. Not one of them passed matric, but I’m not aware of any going on to harder drugs.
      Legalise it, but bring in a mandatory five-year prison sentence for anyone found in charge of a vehicle or machinery while high.

    • Novacane

      Ah well, if that is the case then the vast amounts of funds spent on acquiring marijuana will still be piped to the criminals, instead of an additional taxable resource that for example would bring in 14 billions dollars annually like in California, And their marijuana laws are still bound to medicinal only! Imagine the income revenues with recreational smoking laws. ….
      And that is a shame because why would we want to continue putting money in the criminals hands? Because we cant buy it legally over here! So off to my rasta guy i go then 😉