JOHANNESBURG: South Africa’s top court ruled Tuesday that private, personal cannabis use was legal in a landmark case that had pitted law enforcement agencies against marijuana advocates and the judiciary.
Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, delivering the Johannesburg-based Constitutional Court’s unanimous verdict, declared the law banning marijuana use in private by adults “is unconstitutional and therefore invalid”.
“It will not be a criminal offence for an adult person to use or be in possession of cannabis in private for his or her personal consumption,” he said, reading the ruling to cheers from the public gallery.
The court also ordered parliament to draft new laws within 24 months to reflect the order.
Outside pro-cannabis campaigners lit pipes and rolled joints to celebrate the news, filling the air with the distinctive aroma of marijuana.
“I’m happy I won’t be getting any more criminal records for possession,” Ruaan Wilson, 29, told AFP before pausing for a puff.
“Now we can get police to focus on real drugs and thugs,” he added, wearing shorts and dark sunglasses.
A court in Western Cape had ruled in March 2017 that a ban on cannabis use by adults at home was unconstitutional, a move that effectively decriminalised it in the province, which includes Cape Town.
But the ministers of justice, police, health and trade challenged that finding, arguing that there was “objective proof of the harmful effects of cannabis.”
Tuesday’s ruling will not decriminalise the use of the drug in public nor the offences of supplying or dealing — but cultivation for personal, private use will no longer be illegal for adults.
Previously, possessing, growing or using marijuana for personal use — even in small quantities — exposed users to fines of up to hundreds of dollars (euros) as well as jail time, although this latter punishment was rare. Penalties for selling the drug were far higher.
Three cannabis users who had faced prosecution for using the drug argued in the Constitutional Court that the prohibition “intrudes unjustifiably into their private spheres”.
Activists clutching banners reading “Weed are free now” and Rastafari flags gathered outside the court in central Johannesburg.
Other boards read “Free the weed”, and “Legalise weed, end economic depression #weedislife”.
Some activists also called for cannabis to be decriminalised for use in public.