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South Africa legalizes cannabis use. Will the rest of Africa follow?

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South Africa legalizes cannabis use. Will the rest of Africa follow?

South Africans can now legally cultivate and use cannabis. The next battle will be to make trading legal. A continent is watching.

On the eve of the May 27 general elections, in which the ruling African National Congress lost its majority for the first time in 30 years of South African democracy, a significant modification to the country’s drug laws was quietly implemented.

Just one day before the historic voting, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed the Cannabis for Private Purposes Act, making South Africa the first African country to legalize marijuana use.

The measure removes cannabis from the country’s list of illegal substances, allowing adults to cultivate and use the plant (save in the presence of children). The bill further states that people who violate the law by doing such acts will have their records instantly erased. However, it is unclear how this will occur, or when and if any of the 3,000 people in prison for cannabis-related offenses as of 2022 would be released.

However, after years of agitation and talks, activists say the fight is far from done.

“[Ramaphosa] finally found his pen, and cannabis is no longer classified as a dangerous, dependence-producing substance in South Africa,” Myrtle Clarke, co-founder of Fields of Green for ALL, an NGO that advocates for cannabis reform, told Al Jazeera from Johannesburg.

“Now we can move on to what to do about trade, which remains illegal.”

Unlike other countries that have legalized cannabis, such as Malta, Canada, and Uruguay, there is currently no legal way for a casual smoker to obtain it in South Africa unless you grow it yourself. Selling cannabis remains unlawful unless it is for medical purposes and has been prescribed by a physician.

“What the bill effectively does is if for some reason you get caught with some amount of cannabis that a policeman thinks is too much for your personal use, you can’t be charged as a drug dealer,” Clarke said.

In other words, it is theoretically acceptable to grow a forest of smelly plants in your backyard, as long as you do not profit from it. However, a sizable gray market already exists.

The new legislation has been in development for six years. Following a 2018 court finding that private cannabis smoking was constitutional, the government was directed to create laws to legalize it within two years.

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