When Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo handed down the Constitutional Court’s decision to decriminalise the personal and private use of cannabis, Gareth Prince was seated in the front row.
His beard is now grey and his dreadlocks much tighter and longer than 20 years ago, when he first approached the courts to decriminalise cannabis.
As Zondo ordered the state to pay the costs of his legal fees, Prince cheered in celebration alongside his Rastafari friends and supporters. It was a moment of vindication and victory, he told the Mail & Guardian.
“The journey came full circle nearly three decades later. The harder the battle, the sweeter the victory,” he said.
Prince’s legal fight against the criminalisation of cannabis started in 1998, when he was refused admission as an attorney by the Cape Law Society because of his criminal record for possession of cannabis.
But his decision to fight “unfair discrimination” against the herb and the people who share his Rastafari faith began while he was a second-year law student in 1989 in Cape Town, when he was arrested for possession of cannabis in the street outside his Kraaifontein home.
“The downpression suffered by brown and black people and especially the position of the Rastafari inspired me to study law. The fact that I was arrested consolidated that,” he said.
During his first court appearance Prince learnt that “the disrespect and disgust for our indigenous people and our practices were quite apparent”, he said.
“I appeared in the Bellville magistrate’s court. The words I remember clearest are those of the magistrate when sentencing me: ‘Don’t come and tell the court about laws of
the Bible.’ My question was:How could the law ignore the Bible if they ask you to swear on the Bible and God?”
In 2002, Prince unsuccessfully approached the Constitutional Court to argue that possession and use of the herb was a religious right.
But he soldiered on and placed his hope on changing times and his conviction to “fight the system” on behalf of the Rastafari, he said.
Prince described the judgment in 2002 as the most difficult period in the fight to decriminalise cannabis. But “suffering the injustice of persecution pained our hearts right from the outset”, he said.
Zondo’s judgment has brought him “relief”, but he regrets it happened after his mother died in 2016, and she did not witness her son’s vindication in the land’s highest court.
“The journey since that time has been perilous and I have never really been in a position to assist and repay my mother for her love, patience and perseverance.”
Prince said his journey is far from complete. He will now endeavour to ensure the “safety of our [Rastafari] community and provide input to Parliament as to how we chart the way forward”.
As for his personal ambitions, Prince said he will approach the Law Society to finally fulfil his dream of practising law.
“The fact that [my mother] has been denied the glory of seeing her son achieve his dream of practising as an attorney is heartbreaking.”