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How cannabis became a “drug” in South Africa

Updated: Aug 29

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Thembisa Waetjen, professor of history at the University of Johannesburg, and is derived from her presentation at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference, which was held from April 19-20, 2018, at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. In it, she argues that international cannabis criminalization was, in part, the result of an appeal made by the South African government in 1923. But what lay behind that appeal? And what were its consequences, locally?

On 31 March last year, the Western Cape High Court of South Africa, in the case of Garreth Prince, ruled as constitutional the personal use of cannabis by an adult in a private dwelling, along with the possession, purchase or cultivation associated with such use. Reflecting liberalizing trends in other parts of the world, this outcome signaled a shift in South Africa’s punitive drugs policy.

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Thembisa Waetjen presents at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference. Photo by Morgan Scott, Breathe Images


Jan Christiaan Smuts, 1919. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Many people don’t know that African countries, specifically Egypt and South Africa, played a crucial role in international cannabis criminalization in the early 20th century. In 1923, the office of Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts requested that the League of Nations include Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica on the list of ‘dangerous drugs’, to be regulated by global narcotics law. He explained:

“… from the point of view of the Union of South Africa, the most important of all the habit-forming drugs is Indian Hemp or ‘Dagga’.” [1]

What was the local story behind this appeal?

Cannabis and Colonialism

Cannabis enjoyed a deep pre-colonial history of use in southeastern Africa, adopted into indigenous communities some centuries ago through continental circulations and the Indian Ocean trade. The multiple social and economic meanings of dagga were dramatically transformed through European settlement, conquest, and political incorporation.

Anglophone settlers arrived in South Africa without cannabis traditions of their own. For early 20th century government administrators, it is clear that the question of how to govern dagga was very much a question of how to govern colonial subjects.


The Union of South Africa, formed out of four British colonies.

Yet official views were, in fact, divided on the question of dagga prohibition. These divisions were felt especially from 1910, when the Union of South Africa was created out of four distinctive British colonies – Cape, Natal, Transvaal and Orange River. On one hand were politicians favouring prohibition, formally advised on the matter by a medical professional vanguard who, with support from temperance campaigners and missionaries, envisioned a single set of laws governing all regional inhabitants. On the other hand were accommodationists, advocates of ‘indirect rule’, who sought to preserve – but subordinate to the colonial state – the authority of African chiefs, headmen and elders. They saw the smoking of dagga as a cultural practice that should be regulated informally, through customary structures of patriarchy.

Representing this latter view, the Natal Native Affairs Department warned that prohibition would be impossible to enforce and likely produce rebellious sentiments among African subjects:

“Dagga smoking is very deeply rooted [in African culture], more particularly among the older men, many of whom while irrevocably addicted to the drug are not of a stamp who should be made criminals by a stroke of the pen.”[2]


Gold mining was became the basis of South Africa’s modern economy. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the Transvaal during this period, the official concern about intoxicants was related to the fitness and controllability of colonial subjects as labourers in the gold mining sector. In response to company surveys in 1908 and 1911, mining inspectors firmly advocated tolerance for dagga-smoking.

The Cape Colony, in contrast, was keen to prohibit dagga, pushing the issue towards a national agenda from 1914. In 1905, it began to regulate dagga as a pharmaceutical poison. When it was reported that pharmacists were selling cannabis “non-medicinally,” as part of a lucrative intoxicant trade, Health Department officials worked with police, canvasing the Western Cape for evidence that dagga incited lust and sexual attack, curbed labour efficiency, and interfered with physical and mental health.  

Cannabis Law-Making: Compromise and Outcomes

In 1916, the Union government drafted a national ‘Opium and other Habit-Forming Drugs Regulation’ bill, that would prohibit use, possession, traffic and unlicensed cultivation of dagga, defining it in law as a “habit-forming drug.” Though it was never tabled, it nonetheless served as the model for a Customs and Excise Regulation Amendment Act, a law that formalized dagga prohibition in South Africa in 1922.

It is certainly the case, as other scholars have observed, that early 1920s racist public panics around dagga helped push prohibition through parliament in 1922.[3] Yet what has entirely escaped notice is that this legislation rested upon a momentous compromise.

The compromise was this: In South Africa’s geography of race segregation, the new law now empowered authorities to police urban workplaces and “white” civic and residential zones. Yet officials in the Native Affairs Departments, especially in Natal and the eastern Cape, continued to lobby against the legislation. The Health Department was compelled to offer assurances that:

“…police will exercise judgement and discrimination, and avoid drastic or ill-advised attempts to enforce the letter of the law in remote localities where moderate Dagga smoking by some of the natives is of little importance from the point of view of public order and welfare.”[4]


Punishments for dagga possession and cultivation were severe, as show by a sample record from one town in 1928.

The compromise, in other words, rested on a division of racial geography. As the century progressed, the effect of this spatial division proved enormously significant. It shaped the illicit cannabis economies that quickly developed after the law passed. Communal (‘tribal’) land became important for cultivating dagga, which – through collaboration with police and white landowners — was smuggled into urban and industrial spaces. Thus, the law had dire, punitive consequences for black South Africans in particular, compounding the more broadly carceral politics of apartheid from 1948.

This history must be considered in the light of imminent changes to dagga law. New rulings are scheduled for August, and the stakes are high for cannabis legalization or decriminalization.

https- article cash-crops-poisoned-pondoland

Today, dagga farmers live in vulnerable conditions. See

One can hope that people whose largely impoverished livelihoods have long relied on dagga cultivation – a highly vulnerable occupation – will be brought into the legitimate market.

It seems more likely, however, that big capital will quickly step in to appropriate the dagga supply chain, perhaps even cynically marketing cannabis practices and products as “anti-colonial” and politically liberatory for new generations of consumers.


1.) National Archive of South Africa. SAB BTS 2/1/104 LN 15/1SA Draft letter, Prime Minister to Secretary, League of Nations, 28 November 1923.

2.) SAB NTS 8194 3/345   Natal Chief Native Commissioner, C.A. Wheelwright, to Secretary for Native Affairs, Pretoria, 12 December 1922.

3.) Martin Chanock, The making of South African legal culture 1902-1936: fear, favour and prejudice Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2001), see pp. 92-96; Craig Paterson, ‘Prohibition and Resistance: A Socio- Political Exploration of the Changing Dynamics of the Southern African Cannabis Trade, c. 1850-the Present’, Unpublished MA Thesis, Rhodes University, (2009).

4.) SAB NTS 8194 3/345 J.A. Mitchell, Secretary for Public Health to Secretary Native Affairs, Pretoria, 12 December 1922.

#Marijuana #Cannabis #colonialism #SouthAfrica #Africanhistory #marijuanahistory #CannabisGlobalHistories

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