/ 25 August 2003

Rastas should live by their own rules, says Prince

Outspoken Rastafarian paralegal Gareth Prince wants the African Human Rights Commission to tamper with a South African Constitutional Court judgement that decrees the use of dagga to be a criminal act, even for ardent Rastafarians.

South Africa is cited as a respondent in the communication which, if accepted, will be the first involving South Africa as applicant and respondent.

Next month the Human Rights Commission is expected to hold preliminary hearings to decide whether Prince has a case, and only then will it set a date for a hearing on the merits of using cannabis.

The commission does not, however, have binding authority over the African Union member states and may only issue recommendations. Prince, who holds BJuris and LLB degrees, wants the pan-African body to recommend that genuine Rastafarians be exempted from criminal prosecution resulting from the use of cannabis.

”Such an exemption would ensure that Rastafari continue to practise their religion unhindered, thereby exercising their right to freedom of religion,” Prince says in papers prepared for the commission.

”It is very important to note that what the complainant is praying for is not the overall decriminalisation of cannabis.”

Prince’s legal struggle began after the Cape Law Society declined to admit him as an attorney because he had two criminal convictions relating to possession of dagga. The law society subsequently won a challenge to its decision in the Cape High Court.

The society required Prince to promise he would never smoke dagga again before it would grant him a licence to practise in court.

Prince, however, declined to make the promise, saying that he was a Rastafarian and the ”holy herb” was central to his faith. He repeats the assertion in his latest application.

”The smoking of cannabis may be likened to holy communion in some Christian religions. Apart from smoking it, cannabis may also be burnt as incense, eaten as part of food, drunk as a tonic or bathed in. These purposes are no less sacred than smoking.”

After the Cape High Court ruled in favour of the law society, the matter went to the Constitutional Court, where Prince argued that it was a violation of his and other Rastafarians’ right to freedom of religion, belief and opinion as enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution.

Five of the nine Constitutional Court judges ruled against an exemption for Rastafarian use of cannabis.

Prince will now attempt to convince the commission of the centrality of cannabis to his religion.

”The use of cannabis in the Rastafari religion is a sacred act surrounded by very strict discipline and elaborate protocol. The use of the herb is to create unity and assist in establishing the eternal relationship with the Creator,” he says in his papers.

”Genuine Rastafari abhor the casual use or abuse of the herb and their use of cannabis is not intended to create an opportunity for [this].”

Pretoria University’s Centre for Human Rights is bankrolling Prince’s application to the commission.