Picture: 123RF/jeremy nathan
Picture: 123RF/jeremy nathan

Forget headache-inducing champagne and run-of-the-mill cakes — weed-loving South Africans can now celebrate their weddings by sharing joints and pot brownies with their guests.

"That’s a private, invite-only function — of course you can have a cannabis wedding," says marijuana activist Myrtle Clarke.

Clarke and Julian Stobbs, known as the "dagga couple", want South Africans to make the most of the recent Constitutional Court ruling that effectively decriminalised the private use of cannabis in SA.

The judgment precedes Canada’s move to become the first economic powerhouse to let adults use cannabis for recreational purposes. But unlike Canada and other nations that have moved towards legalisation, SA has started with private consumption rather than medical marijuana.

"As far as private functions and private clubs are concerned, we’ve read the judgment and there are definite loopholes," says Clarke, who has been fighting for the full legalisation of marijuana with her partner since they were arrested for possession in 2010.

Starting from Richards Bay in KwaZulu-Natal, they have been travelling west across SA in recent weeks to meet "the underground and mobilise everybody", Clarke says.

To make the most of the somewhat restrictive court ruling, the dagga couple think that South Africans should take a leaf out of the Spanish playbook and form members-only cannabis clubs.

"In Spain, you’re allowed to grow five plants each … So 250 people get together and that’s quite a lot of weed."

The definition of a private space, however, still needs to be worked out, says Clarke. For instance, it’s not yet clear whether a car is considered a private area.

Obviously there are dangers with abuse, so we’ll need to pump some of those taxes into education
Tony Budden

But Clarke says their mobilisation tour is also about encouraging people to learn how to act within the law — "because all of us have been underground for so long that it’s going to be an adjustment".

And while trading the herb remains an offence, she says users can probably look forward to a gradual decline in prices, which remain "ridiculously high" in places such as Cape Town. "Bottom-end prices won’t change much but I think the top-end prices will drop," she predicts.

A study by Colorado-based BDS Analytics shows unprocessed marijuana prices in Oregon have fallen 36% to $4.60 a gram (pretax) since the start of 2016.

The US state legalised the recreational use of marijuana in 2014.

Tom Adams, MD and principal analyst at BDS Analytics, says legalisation tends to herald a proliferation of product types and that prices tend to diverge thereafter.

While flower prices usually decline, the prices of cannabis beverages and edibles — weed-infused candy and chocolates — go up.

BDS Analytics’ study also found that legalisation has "a ripple effect on the pharmaceutical industry". About half of the 17,000 people surveyed had decreased their consumption of prescription and over-the-counter medication in recent months.

The beverage industry is also being disrupted. A 2017 study by Georgia State University found that alcohol sales had fallen 15% in US states after medical marijuana was legalised.

For that reason, alcohol giants such as Constellation Brands, Diageo and Molson Coors are seeking tie-ups with marijuana firms. Even in SA, a craft brewery backed by RCL Foods CEO Miles Dally and Spar CEO Graham O’Connor recently launched a beer made with cannabis, albeit the legal hemp variety of the plant.

"There’s a lot of movement, in California in particular, towards events that are pairing food, wine and cannabis," Adams says.

This new strategy by major brewers and distilleries, as well as soft-drinks giant Coca-Cola, "has given us more confidence that our forecast of a $32bn cannabis market [globally] in 2022 will, if anything, prove to have been conservative", he says.

To avoid missing out, the full legalisation of cannabis "is definitely something SA should look at", says Tony Budden, co-owner of Cape Town-based hemp company Hemporium.

What it means

Activists say SA should not miss out on the burgeoning marijuana market, which is forecast to reach $32bn globally in 2022

The industry could benefit small-scale rural farmers, create jobs and bolster the state’s taxes, while SA’s stretched police force would be able to redirect its attention towards more serious crimes, Budden says.

"Obviously there are dangers with abuse, as with anything, so we’ll need to pump some of those taxes into education and make sure that it’s difficult for the youth to get hold of this plant, and that licences can be lost if there’s any infringement."

Budden says an increasing number of studies show that marijuana can help people with pain, mood disorders and sleep. Many in SA are already using it for medical purposes, "but people are getting it from someone who can’t tell them how it was grown and processed, what solvents were used, what potency it is and what the dosage should be".

Naturally, not everyone is thrilled about the burgeoning cannabis market or the Constitutional Court ruling.

Doctors for Life International, which claims to represent 1,500 doctors, specialists and professors of medicine, says the judgment will "send SA down the wrong path".

Legalisation in places such as Canada, Uruguay and SA "is at best an experiment at the expense of the lives of our youth — it is apathetic towards the harm the drug has already caused so many of them".

The organisation says a recent study in Colorado found that cannabis-related traffic deaths leapt 151% since legalisation in January 2014. Violent crime rates were also higher.