Following a major 2018 judgment, which decriminalized the private use of cannabis, it appears that South Africa could finally be inching toward legalization of personal cannabis use. However, there are a number of asterisks — as there often are when it comes to cannabis reform.

On Tuesday, the South African National Assembly approved a bill that would legalize the personal use of cannabis, BusinessLIVE reports. The Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill has been in the works since the country decriminalized private cannabis use in 2018 and now heads to the National Council of Provinces for concurrence.

Parties including the African National Congress, Democratic Alliance, Inkatha Freedom Party, Economic Freedom Fighters, National Freedom Party and Pan Africanist Congress of Azania all showed support for the bill, while the Freedom Front Plus and the African Christian Democratic Party opposed it during the National Assembly’s plenary meeting held Tuesday afternoon.

While a number of African countries have moved to legalize cannabis cultivation or medical cannabis, the move would set a precedent for adult-use cannabis on the continent. Still, the reform measure has one major caveat.

Democratic Alliance Member of Parliament Janho Engelbrecht spoke on the bill in the National Assembly, highlighting adults will only be allowed to use cannabis privately in their homes and sales will still be strictly prohibited should the measure pass.

“People should bear in mind what this bill is about. It is about cannabis for private use by adults. You are not allowed to buy or sell cannabis, because this still remains a criminal activity with severe consequences. If you want to smoke it, you have to grow it, don’t buy it,” Engelbrecht said.

However, similar to many of the reform measures passing throughout the United States, the bill would also provide for the expungement of criminal records for those convicted of possession, use or dealing in cannabis based on presumption. It does not specify the quantities of cannabis plants and dried cannabis a person would be allowed to possess for private use. It also does not legalize cannabis for medical use, nor does it create a regulated commercial market.

Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola will draw up the regulations surrounding private adult cannabis use to submit to Parliament for approval.

So, why the delay? Why did the National Assembly take five years to push the bill forward? According to Moloto Mothapo, a Parliament spokesperson, the bill’s potential impact on children was the reason for the continued delays in its passage. 

Mothapo also said that the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development called upon the committee to consider broadening the bill’s scope, namely to include considerations surrounding the bet of interest of children as it pertains to legalizing private adult-use cannabis.

“The bill as tabled and deliberated on by the committee up until its meeting on September 12, 2023, did not look beyond the adult-centered focus of the private-purpose use of cannabis,” Mothapo told IOL.

While the bill does not expressly create a South African recreational cannabis market or legalize cannabis sales, Mothapo shared the committee’s hope that the measure may create a pathway for the country’s future cannabis industry. 

The South African government also seems to be on board, as it has identified the Cannabis and Hemp sector as one of 14 priority sectors holding “significant potential to secure investment, job creation and support for sustainable rural livelihoods, in recognition of people’s rights.”

In 2017, the Western Cape Town High Court ruled that prohibiting cannabis use by adults in their private homes is unconstitutional, following a case filed by Rastafarian Garreth Prince and former Dagga Party leader Jeremy Acton. The pair argued that the ban on the personal use of cannabis was discriminatory and outdated, namely that it disproportionately targeted Black people and Indigenous South Africans. 

The Constitutional Court affirmed the ruling the following year, and the government must approve an appropriate bill by Sept. 28, 2024 to finalize the legislative reform process.

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