Massive breakthrough in cannabis bill

Dramatic changes to proposed legislation allowing for a commercial recreational cannabis industry in South Africa have been tabled in parliament, enabling the government to push ahead its master plan for the sector announced last August.

The radical amendments to the Cannabis for Private Purposes bill were presented for the first time to parliament’s justice and constitutional development portfolio committee on Tuesday.

The committee hopes to pass the bill in parliament by the end of this term in April, after which it will go to the National Council of Provinces. It will also likely have to go for a second round of public hearings, because the amendments were introduced after the public consultation process had been completed.

In his State of the Nation address last month, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the government was ready to push ahead with legalising and regulating the commercial cannabis industry, which he said could create 130 000 much-needed jobs.

The masterplan, tabled by the department of agriculture last year, values the industry at a potential R28-billion a year.

The amendments remove the legislative obstacle that the bill had previously thrown up with regard to a commercial cannabis industry, because it had provided limits only on personal possession and cultivation and had criminalised any cannabis trade whatsoever.

The amendments were introduced at the initiative of the department of trade, industry and competition — and in response to input from public hearings on the bill — to allow for the licensed commercial cultivation and sale of cannabis for recreational purposes.

The new clauses in the bill authorise “commercial activities in respect of recreational cannabis”, subject to the enactment of legislation to regulate and license the industry.

This subsequent legislation would regulate the recreational industry under a licensing scheme that would provide for different categories of licences for cultivation, sale and processing of cannabis.

The licensing regime would encourage local economic growth and investment and would give preferential access to rural communities historically involved in the industry, including the Rastafarian community and “other cultural and religious communities which have been prejudiced by past discrimination on the basis of their association with cannabis.”

The cultivation, processing, packaging and sale of recreational cannabis would all be regulated, as well as with the quality, strength and safety of the plant flowers or extracts traded in.

Regulation would also provide for harm-reduction measures and public education about cannabis, together with monitoring the effects of its availability on public health.

The government would also be required to set up a National Cannabis Advisory Council consisting of experts in the field to advise the government on policy around harm reduction.

The bill allows representatives of religious or cultural communities to secure permits to cultivate and sell cannabis.  

In his presentation to the committee, state legal adviser Sarel Robbertse said cannabis should be treated in the same way as alcohol or tobacco and that the legal age for consumption should reflect this and stand at 18.

Robbertse said the earlier version of the Bill had not allowed for the commercial cannabis industry and that the new clauses addressed this. The specific regulations would come from other ministries, which would be tasked with regulating the industry and providing a licensing regime.

This process would be required to promote broad-based black economic empowerment and accommodate communities — like Rastafarians — who had been historically prejudiced by their association with cannabis, Robbertse said.

African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart described the changes to the Bill as “‘dramatic”’ and said it should not be used to limit access of any of the existing operators in the industry who, although currently illegal, would want to legalise their operations.

Committee chairperson Gratitude Magwanishe said that the committee was “fine”’ with the amendments, subject to a legal opinion on the public participation process.

The committee, he said, should endeavour to pass the bill by the end of the current parliamentary session, or at least have taken it to an “advanced stage”of the process.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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