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I.  Introduction

South African law criminalizes three categories of what are known as “dependence-producing drugs”: dependence-producing substances, dangerous dependence-producing substances, and undesirable dependence-producing substances.[1] Offenses relating to “dangerous drugs” (including fentanyl and methadone) and “undesirable drugs” (including cannabis, known as dagga, and heroin) are subject to harsh penalties depending on the form of the offense involved.[2] Dealing in any such substances is, on conviction, punishable by a fine and/or a prison term of up to twenty-five years.[3]  Use or possession is, on conviction, subject to a fine and/or imprisonment not exceeding fifteen years.  Some exceptions apply in both instances.[5]

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II.  Proposed Changes

South Africa’s Parliament is currently considering a proposal to reform the ban on certain uses of cannabis.  Legislation introduced in September 2014 seeks to legalize cannabinoids[6]for medical and other uses.[7] The bill specifically states that “no one shall be liable or guilty of any offence for growing, processing, distributing, using, prescribing, advertising or otherwise dealing with or promoting cannabinoids for purposes of . . . treatment . . . and . . . commercial or industrial uses or products . . . .”[8]  The bill lacks clarity with regard to the circumstances and extent to which commercial or industrial use would be permitted.  Currently before the Portfolio Committee on Health, if enacted in its current form, the bill would accord complete authority to the Department of Trade and Industry to determine terms for the commercial or industrial use of cannabinoids through proclamations.[9] This is reportedly widely seen as a path to legalization and some have called for changes to be made to the bill so that its application is limited to medical use.[10]

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Prepared by Hanibal Goitom
Foreign Law Specialist
July 2016

[1] Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act No. 140 of 1992, §§ 1, 4 & 5, 8 Butterworths Statutes of South Africa (updated through 2015), version updated through 2010 available on the South Africa Department of Justice website, at, archived at

[2] Id. § 1.

[3] Id. §§ 5, 13 & 17.

[4] Id. §§ 4, 13 & 17.

[5] Id. §§ 4 & 5.

[6]“Cannabinoids” have been defined as “any part or chemical constituent of the plant known as cannabis, marijuana or dagga, any genetic modification thereof, and any extract thereof or product containing it or resulting from processing thereof.”  Medical Innovation Bill § 1, PMP1-2014, Government Gazette No. 37349 (Feb. 18, 2014), available on the South Africa government website at, archived at  

[7] Portfolio Committee on Health, Parliament of the Republic of South Africa, live/content.php?Item_ID=215&CommitteeID=91 (last visited June 29, 2016), archived at

[8] Medical Innovation Bill § 7.

[9] Medical Innovation Bill § 7 & Memorandum on Objectives at 8.

[10] Tamar Kahn, Weed Out Commercial Use of Dagga, Say IFP, Business Day Live (Aug. 13, 2015),, archived at; Russ Belville, South African Marijuana Legalization May Become Medical-Only, Marijuana Politics (Aug. 18, 2015),, archived at; Press Release, The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) Responds to the Medical Innovation Bill (May 28, 2015), Media/2015/12press2015.htm, archived at; Sipokazi Fokazi, Dagga Bill ‘Would Add to Social Problems’, IOL (Aug. 13, 2015), 12press2015.htm, archived at