Business Maverick


Loaded For Bear: Cannabis prohibition was Calvinistic, classist and racist, so good riddance

Loaded For Bear: Cannabis prohibition was Calvinistic, classist and racist, so good riddance
Calvinism's grip on cannabis in South Africa loosened as President Cyril Ramaphosa signed the Cannabis for Private Purposes Act, writes the author. (Photo: by Roberto Valdivia on Unsplash)

The prohibition of pot, like that of booze and gambling, was an anachronism rooted in Calvinism, classism and racism. Its ending was decades overdue, though the full commercial potential from this low-hanging fruit will not be harvested because sale for recreational purposes perplexingly remains banned.

One of the last relics of Calvinism — an austere brand of Protestantism associated with the National Party that imposed apartheid — ended with a stroke of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s pen on 28 May.

As my colleague Georgina Crouth reported last week, Ramaphosa finally signed into law the Cannabis for Private Purposes Act (“CFPPA”). The CFPPA regulates the cultivation, possession, and use of cannabis by adults in a private setting.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cannabis sector on a high as new weed law for private use finally enacted

In power for three decades, the ANC has dismantled many of the Calvinistic vestiges of the Ancien Régime. Casinos are now ubiquitous and booze can be legally purchased at bottle stores on Sundays.

There have been short-term reversals, such as the questionable banning of the sale of alcohol and tobacco during the hard lockdowns to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. Like other examples of prohibition, this was paternalistic, ineffective and the consequences included a surge in illicit tobacco usage which continues.

South Africa’s Calvinist past and its often ham-fisted attempts to mould social policy have been brilliantly dissected in Charles van Onselen’s superb “Three Wise Monkeys” trilogy. This included hilarious crusades against gambling, pinball machines and “Hippy Music”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Of lotteries, pinball machines and Calvinist anxieties

In the trilogy of “Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll”, the ANC has perpetuated prohibition on the second, seemingly oblivious to its racist and classist roots.

The links between Calvinism, racism and exploitation — and prohibition — became embedded in the fabric of the emerging industrial order that sprang from South Africa’s mining industry.

In the late 19th century, the Chamber of Mines initially encouraged the black migrant labour force to drink, on the grounds that this would provide an incentive for the miners to renew their contracts.

But by 1896, the Chamber of Mines was advocating a total prohibition of the sale of alcohol to black people in mining areas on the grounds that booze and productivity — like brandy and coke in a can — was a toxic mix.

The following year, a law came into force prohibiting any black person on the Witwatersrand from buying, selling or drinking liquor. Variations of that 1897 law would subsequently be refined to prevent black South Africans from consuming most forms of alcohol.

Pot prohibition fell into this paternalistic policy platform and included white South Africans, a reflection of wider Calvinist anxieties. By the 1960s, “hippy music” and pot smoking were seen as a devilish duo on the dance floor of moral decay.

Elsewhere the “War on Drugs” in countries such as the US has often had an explicitly racist tinge.

But the times, as one famous “hippy music” artist once sang, are a changin’, and pot policy has been liberalising at a rapid pace globally.

This stems from the sensible grounds that adults should be treated as adults and that alcohol and tobacco are far more addictive and worse for your health than dagga.

In my native Canada, the sale of cannabis products for recreational use — which basically means to get stoned — has been legal since 2018. Like alcohol and tobacco, it is regulated with age restrictions and heavily taxed. Many US states have also taken this route, and restrictions on recreational marijuana use have also faded in Europe or are not really enforced.

In South Africa now, cannabis has been removed from the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act.

Medical marijuana is now effectively legal, and has huge commercial potential.

For recreational purposes, adults may now — in a private place — possess, grow or use cannabis. And your friend or ouma can give you some as a gift but money cannot change hands in the exchange.

This means the new regulations have not fully lifted restrictions in a way that allows for the sale of grass for recreational reasons, which is a constraint on its economic potential — and the ability of a cash-strapped government to tap an additional source of revenue.

Perhaps this can be seen as “Prohibition lite” or “Calvinism lite”.

But the genie on this front is well out of the bottle anyway. This correspondent can report that — let’s just say according to reliable sources — bud is easily purchased from several retail outlets in Johannesburg where cannabis is quite openly sold over the counter. And it contains THC, the stuff that gets you buzzed, as well as CBD.

Still, progress has been made. Policy regarding cannabis is now more in line with the Constitution than it is with socially conservative Calvinism. That’s something to toast with a glass or a joint. DM


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  • Mike SA says:

    The late Prof Harry Seftel was of the view that heavy use of cannabis brings on schizophrenia and having seen the effects of dagga use particularly at school there is no doubt regarding its negative effects on people and families notwithstanding that it is a gateway drug.

    • Gareth Searle says:

      all fair points, but banning something is NOT the way. People will profiteer for it as the price goes up. Education and let adults make a decision

    • Timothy Van Blerck says:

      My bible teacher told me the same thing, however the concept of a gateway drug as a causal agent is questionable at best

    • Malcolm McManus says:

      I would tend to agree. Cannabis use was quite trendy in the 80’s and I personally know of two users from school days who ended up dead after entering the gateway to harder drugs. Those that can resist the urge to progress to harder drugs are many times safer off, both mentally and physically.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    Medical fact: schizophrenia can be exacerbated by excessive use of cannabis. Its use for medicinal purposes is not questioned. Concern with regard to its use has nothing to do with Calvinism.

  • Dingus McPingle says:

    Come to Durban and see how many cannabis retail shops there are everywhere – there are three within walking distance from my house in Glenwood. I wouldn’t have it any other way!

  • PK PK says:

    Now to get psilocybin legalised 😊

  • Jenny Hall says:

    Nowhere in my now aged brain do I connect drugs and drug abuse with any religion. Some things are good, some are bad but the fact is that early use of cannabis is ill advised and often leads to abuse. My good Canadian friend says she has to dodge the bodies when out running in Fort Vic in summer

  • JC Coetzee says:

    Ed, you only need to deal with a psychotic person full of THC once to know that it is lethal stuff. And why the rant on Calvinism? Not a good article.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    So where to draw the line? I for one do not feel qualified to make statements regarding this specific topic but I do know people need limits generally, and I’m comfortable to defer to experts to set them.

    Racist? That’s a stretch, the approach has been western policy globally for a very long time.

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