The Origins of Cannabis in Africa

Dagga is the Afrikaans term commonly used for cannabis. It comes from the Khoikhoi word dacha, which was used by the early European colonial settlers in the Western Cape.

Cannabis is thought to have been introduced to Africa by early Arab or Indian traders. It was already in popular use in South Africa by the indigenous Khoisan and Bantu peoples prior to European settlement in the Cape in 1652. It was traditionally used by the Basotho people to ease childbirth.

The first written record of the plant in South Africa is by Jan van Riebeeck, who ordered officers of the Voorman to purchase “daccha” in Natal for trade with the Khoikhoi. The Dutch East India Company tried to establish a monopoly on its sale, and prohibited cultivation of the plant by Cape settlers from 1680. However, the availability of cannabis in the wild and through trade with indigenous peoples meant that there was little profit to be made and the prohibition was lifted in 1700.

In “A Brief Agricultural History of Cannabis in Africa, From Prehistory to Canna-Colony”, “Duvall traces the arrival of the cannabis plant in Africa from its evolutionary ground zero of southern Asia to 1,000 years in the past. Cannabis seeds and an awareness of marijuana’s psychoactive properties probably landed in the Indian Ocean island country of Madagascar and hopped to Africa’s Mediterranean coast (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) and from there deeper into the continent.”

“The first writings documenting cannabis use on the continent for its psychoactive effects date back to the 1100s in North Africa. Further evidence cited by Duvall predates these written records. The understanding of cannabis’s mind altering attractions in North Africa apparently stretches back to an appetite for cannabis edibles in 1000 BC Syria.

Though African countries and communities consumed cannabis in multiple ways for thousands of years, it was mostly grown and sold as a drug to be smoked. Duvall suggested that the diversity of Africa’s early cannabis culture was key to a great genetic diversity in Africa’s cannabis plants.

All across the continent, cannabis smokers set aside seeds from their favored flower heads. This deliberate selection of cannabis plants that embodied preferred characteristics created regional marijuana variants. Cannabis smokers transported and traded their cherished seeds with fellow travelers and among neighboring populations.

By the 1580s, the sophisticated management of cannabis plant genetics and agricultural selection in southeastern Africa resulted in the development of a marijuana strain valued as an appetite suppressant. Through early mastery of cannabis biochemistry, the southeastern African seed savers bred plants that were rich in the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabivarin, which modern western science would centuries later discover acts as an appetite suppressant. There are several varieties of cannabis that can trace their lineage back to Africa, that have been found to have high amounts of THCV in them. Examples include Durban Poison, Swazi Gold and Malawi Gold.

Apart from marijuana gardens and cultivated farmland, thickets of cannabis were seen growing in the wild across Central Africa in the last half century of the 1900s.”

Colonial Cannabis

For the most part, colonial governments did not outlaw cannabis cultivation until 1925, pressured by the international edicts of the Geneva Opium Convention. This treaty signed by 40 countries, dictated a global cannabis prohibition. The agreement’s signees, including colonial Africa, set about eradicating the drug. Cannabis cultivation throughout Africa became a criminal enterprise. The plant was far from eradicated.

“Once marijuana farming became illegal, cannabis became one of the more profitable crops on the continent, and among the riskiest. Post 1960s African cannabis farmers, generally from impoverished, marginalized social strata, cultivated their cannabis plots in remote hideaways. The clandestine cannabis farmers endured raids from police and thieves, risking incarceration and physical violence along with confiscation or theft of their cannabis plants.

French Congo and Ottoman Egypt blamed marijuana for a lazy workforce and attempted to eradicate the cannabis crop. Other colonial thought leaders, such as in South Africa, stigmatized cannabis use as deviant drug abuse and, by 1818, had cracked down on marijuana gardeners, well ahead of marijuana’s official South African prohibition in 1904.”

A Legal History for South Africa

Beginning in 1860, the Natal Colony began to import Indian workers (called “coolies” at the time) to supplement their labour force. These Indians brought with them the habit of consuming cannabis and hashish, which blended with local, extant African traditions. The European authorities were concerned by this practice, believing it sapped the vitality of their workers. In 1870, Natal’s Coolie Law Consolidation prohibited “the smoking, use, or possession by and the sale, barter, or gift to, any Coolies whatsoever, of any portion of the hemp plant. Both the Cape and Transvaal colonies restricted the growth of the plant, which they considered a “noxious weed”. In 1891, the Cape Colony prohibited cannabis under Act 34, and the Free State outlawed dealing in cannabis in 1903. In 1908, Natal began to regulate the sale of cannabis but in the Transvaal, dagga was sold “openly and normally” by storekeepers to miners.

In 1921, a serious concern developed about the “‘camaraderie’ which led some to lay aside race and other prejudices with regard to fellow” drug users.

In 1922, regulations were issued under an amended Customs and Excises Duty Act which criminalised the possession and use of “habit forming drugs”, including dagga. Under regulation 14, the cultivation, possession, sale, and use of the plant were prohibited. Cannabis was subsequently outlawed internationally in 1925.

Cannabis was wholly criminalised in South Africa in 1928. In 1937, the government of South Africa introduced the Weeds Act, which made the occupant or owner of a property accountable for preventing the growth of cannabis, or any other plant classified as a “weed”, on the property. Under the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act of 1992, people found in possession of more than 115 grams of dagga were presumed to be guilty of dealing. 

The state has conducted cannabis eradication programs since the 1950s. Police initially uprooted dagga plantations and burned the crops but in 1980 switched to using herbicides, which they would dispense with hand-held pumps. By the end of the 1980s, helicopters replaced ground patrols, and helicopter patrols would release herbicides aerially to destroy entire crops in minutes.

Recent South African History

In 2018, cannabis was decriminalised in South Africa by the country’s Constitutional Court for personal consumption by adults in a private space. However, laws prohibiting use outside of one’s private dwelling and buying and selling cannabis still exist.

Before prohibition against the plant was lifted in 2018, advocates wanted the government to modify its laws, which first restricted cannabis since 1922. Law makers wanted to allow exemptions for medical use, religious practices and other purposes. 

On 18 September 2018 the South African Constitutional Court decriminalized the use and cultivation of cannabis in a private space, and provided a 24-month period in which the Parliament of South Africa could amend the relevant laws, failing which the court judgement would prevail. Even though private use of cannabis has been decriminalized the buying and selling of cannabis, cannabis oil and cannabis seeds remains illegal.

Medical cannabis products may be prescribed for any health condition, once the presiding physician determines that it could assist in treatment. Patients may request medical cannabis through authorised health practitioners who are licensed by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA). Once a prescription has been issued to the patient, it can be fulfilled by pharmacists registered with the South African Pharmacy Council (SAPC).

The Dagga Party

“The Dagga Party of South Africa (more commonly known as the Dagga Party) is a South African political party founded in February 2009 by Jeremy Acton, who remains the party’s leader. The Dagga Party was established to allow voters who support the legalisation of dagga to have representation in elections. The party’s position is that cannabis users should have the same rights as people who use tobacco and alcohol.”

Dagga Couple

Julian Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke are known as the “Dagga Couple” in South African media. In August 2010, their property was raided and they were arrested on charges of possessing and dealing in dagga. In February 2011, they argued before a magistrate’s court that they had a “human right to ingest anything” they chose, provided that it did not harm them, and applied for leave to make their case before the Constitutional Court. Their case was struck from the court roll, pending the result of their constitutional challenge of the legality of cannabis prohibition

2018 Constitutional Court ruling

After announcing their decision to rule on the matter, the full panel of judges convened on 18 September 2018 at the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg with Chief Justice Raymond Zondo reading out what he described as a unanimous decision. In his ruling it was stated:

  • An adult person may, [sic] use or be in possession of cannabis in private for his or her personal consumption in private.
  • The use, including smoking, of cannabis in public or in the presence of children or in the presence of non-consenting adult persons is not permitted.
  • The use or possession of cannabis in private other than by an adult for his or her personal consumption is not permitted.
  • The cultivation of cannabis by an adult in a private place for his or her personal consumption in private is no longer a criminal offense.
  • He placed no limits on quantities that adults would be allowed to carry, consume or grow and said that it would be up to parliament to decide once a bill was drawn up to accommodate these recommended changes. 
  • The government has been given a period of 24 months to implement the landmark ruling’s findings.

2020 Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill

“The bill has proposed limits on the personal cultivation, possession, sharing and use of cannabis by adults and in private (out of sight). It makes provision for publicly possessing as well as gifting (without any exchange of remuneration) cannabis plants, seeds/seedlings and dried flowers, or the equivalents thereof. It also depicts what quantities will be considered as trafficable and commercial offences, leading to fines and/or up to 6-years and 15-years imprisonment, respectively. It has yet to be approved by parliament and signed into law.”

Cannabis in Africa –  Present Day

Research by the Medical Research Council (MRC) report that the number of cannabis users in South Africa was 2.2 million in 2004, and 3.2 million in 2008. In 2003, Interpol rated South Africa as the fourth-largest cannabis producer in the world. The Institute for Security Studies reported that most cannabis seized in the UK and a third globally had South African origins.

A document titled “Cannabis in Africa” prepared by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2007 may have come as a surprise. The document delivered twin bombshell revelations.

“The highest levels of cannabis production in the world take place on the African continent. An estimated 38,200,000 African adults, 7.7 percent of the adult African population, consume cannabis every year. That 7.7 percent of the adult African population classified as cannabis users far outpaces the 3.8 percent of the world population aged 15 to 64 identified as cannabis users.”

Two obvious conclusions to be drawn from 38 million African adults using cannabis every year is that the resource rich African continent’s natural assets run far deeper than mere diamonds, gold, uranium, copper, platinum and natural gas, and the history of cannabis culture and Africa started a long, long time ago.

Read about the future of Cannabis in our next blog post

Read more here

Shopping Basket
Scroll to Top