Our Heroes of Cannabis
The Lion of Rasta
Our Heroes of Cannabis?
There was a time before social media, a time before 24-hour news. There was a time when just using the word dagga and the wearing of dreadlocks made you a threat or a criminal. We seem to focus a great deal on things from a slighted perspective in this fight to liberate not only our democratic right to freedom, but also our basic human right to use decriminalized cannabis in every respect.
There are a handful of very special people who have not only walked the road of liberation for cannabis, but have also sacrificed and given at all costs to embrace and uphold the fundamentals of the entire cannabis culture and Rastafarian teachings.
We intend to celebrate these phenomenal people, because we believe that every so often, our community needs to look up to these people and the hardships they have overcome. This teaches us how to triumph over our own struggles. Perhaps in remembrance of their work, may we be inspired to reach a consensus in an effort to unite, in a new age of awareness, for the legitimisation of our culture and way of life.
This first feature of ‘Our Heroes of Cannabis’, will highlight the life and work of a humble, yet profoundly powerful voice in the struggle to liberate the indigenous people of South Africa, including the Rastafarian faith and cannabis community at large.
Gareth Prince, current chairperson of the Cannabis Development Council of South Africa, is a driving force in marijuana decriminalisation in South Africa. He recently allowed Skyf.Co to dig deep into his roots, giving us insight to the man who has blazed through our judicial system and fought for our rights since the reality of a cannabis society within South Africa came into the public’s perspective.
Originally born and raised as a devout Christian in Cape Town, Gareth relocated with his family to Knysna when he was in his early teens. For a young man of colour during the apartheid era, he had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, coupled with an insatiable appetite for justice. From a tender age, he knew what his purpose was.
“I began listening to reggae when I was 12, having my first puff of cannabis at 15,” said Gareth with fondness for the memory, which remains crystal clear in his mind. He tells us more about his upbringing, his inner awakening, and his escape from the religious indoctrination that he felt forced to accept as a child. “The journey that it took me on, was one beyond my wildest dreams.”
“It was reggae that put me onto a path of alternative consciousness,” he continued. “Reggae and Rastafari introduced me to a different way of thinking, one that I can identify with. It spoke to my aspirations, my values, and my desires.”
It wasn’t long before he found himself immersed in the rich heritage and cultures of the indigenous and Rastafari people of southern Africa. It was within the profound messages of freedom and equality through reggae, that his desire to emancipate himself – and his fellow man – from suffering, became more than mere lyrics. This different way of life gave him the opportunity to explore something completely free from the forced way of life indigenous people have been subjected to for centuries, through laws that no longer apply in modern society.
He said, “Under apartheid, we were never given the opportunity to truly develop our indigenous cultures. Our way of thinking, our way of life, was forced upon us.”
Thus, through his love of reggae and the Rasta lifestyle, he was spurred on to not only study law, but also change it, for the benefit of all cannabis users across the country.
“Peter Tosh was my reggae icon,” he stated firmly, adding that songs like ‘Legalize it’, the 1977 album ‘Equal rights’, and lyrics like ‘We don’t want peace, we want justice’, inspired him.
But for Gareth, the path of becoming a lawyer was riddled with monumental obstacles. In a time when laws segregated people and sought to impose a singular will on society, obtaining a law degree for any person of indigenous descent proved almost impossible.
Opportunities were limited for all people of colour at the time, and the apartheid government compounded the situation by only offering bursaries to those who wanted to study teaching. The education curriculums were heavily politicised, and a liberated mind was deemed more dangerous than a loaded weapon. All opinions opposing the nationalist regime were labelled as treacherous.
This was far from what Gareth envisioned for his future, and fortunately, it did not become his fate.
“For me that was never an option,” he continued. “I’m a person that questions things, I love to question everything. It’s for that same reason that I didn’t go to the army, because I knew I wouldn’t fit in. I can’t just take a command from someone and not question it.”
Many hours of hard work later, securing bursaries, and sheer determination, Gareth managed to obtain his law degree. He sites that it was in his first year of study at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), that he decided to adopt the whole Rastafari way of life and began growing his now trademark dreadlocks.
Being a Rasta at that time meant you did not fit into the conventional model. There was great courage in taking the path of Rastafari in those times. However, as he stated, “I knew who I was and I was not going to change for anybody. Under the constitution I had the right to be who I chose to be.”
He completed his degree just as our country was adopting the new constitution in 1998. With the promises of new leadership and a definitive impetus on equality and freedom, there was hope for the Rastafarians with a fresh dispensation. As politicians promised that the people’s rights would be respected, they simultaneously resorted back to the same tactics as the apartheid government. This rang true especially in relation to how they were going to regulate substance control, specifically cannabis.
The exclusion by government of the Rastafarian and cannabis community was undeniable, as they essentially made it clear that Rastas were to be ostracized from the populace majority and these people were treated as outcasts. They were deemed unworthy of participation in economic development, and through impoverishing these communities, the government sought a means of control. This criminalisation of the Rastafari culture, together with the void left in the wake of false promises, seemed to sound of the past apartheid administration. “The usage of cannabis has always been indigenous and customary in South Africa. So, for us as rational human beings, how could they allow people to smoke tobacco and drink alcohol, but in the same breath criminalise the usage of cannabis? That was just as arbitrary as the apartheid laws. Just like school yard bullies who think it’s okay to just bully others.”
His fight to change an evil and unconstitutional system saw his legal battles continue in 2002.
“Asking directly for the freedom of cannabis for all people at that point in time, was not going to fly.”
The strategy was to try and get a foot in the door by requesting an exception for the Rastafarian community. The use of cannabis by these people is a sacred element of their religion, culture and customs.
“There was hope that the new government would, at the very least, respect that because there is freedom of religion and culture under our constitution.”
With a solid argument and sound principles, Gareth was set to change the very path of our cannabis culture. Unfortunately, his efforts were “thwarted” due to an error by his own council at the time.
Documents which were submitted by the attorney to the judge stated the following gross misinterpretation:
“Mr. Prince accepts that the laws in relation to cannabis serves a legitimate purpose, but an exception must be made for Rastafarians.”
The claim was false and derailed Gareth’s first attempt at decriminalisation. It was a devastating blow because his original argument stated that the laws against cannabis are “immoral in principle and totally unworkable in practice.”
He proceeded to fight in every regard, replacing his entire legal team promptly. The Constitutional Court had latched on to the error though, and this affected the standing of the High Court and Supreme Court of Appeals.
He still had a deep desire to cement a functional understanding for Rastafari in South Africa cohesive with government. With a new legal team, Gareth sought to take on the Supreme Court of Appeals and also the Constitutional Court. Sadly, the legal systems bound him to the submission made at the High Court. Ultimately, the courts would not accept new evidence, and no exception was made for the Rastafarian community.
“The courts did not want to accept the new evidence that I wanted to bring in to challenge the cannabis laws in a holistic way,” he continued. “It was a legal technicality, at the end of the day, that prevented me from raising the bigger constitutional issues,” he noted with dismay.
Down the line in 2012, Gareth was arrested at his residence, once again reaffirming the standing of unnecessary persecution and criminalization spurred on by the South African government with regards to cannabis use and cultivation.
Gareth detailed that between 2002 and 2018, an estimated five million people were arrested on cannabis related charges, and this was in his conservative view. More concerning is the fact that these are people who actually spent time in jail because they used cannabis, something that has been used in South Africa for hundreds of years.
“The standing belief that by placing a criminal justice approach at the forefront of policy solutions is completely ludicrous,” said Gareth, noting that government has essentially misappropriated resources in response to a social issue and not the criminal issue they claim it to be.
“Instead of protecting the health and safety of citizens, which is what they claimed they were doing by prohibiting cannabis, they ended up endangering the health and safety of citizens by
putting them into the criminal justice system. This is completely incorrect and inhuman,” said Gareth, with emphasis on how traumatic the experience can be. He quoted a former prison inspectorate who stated categorically that “the criminal justice system is not for rehabilitation; and correctional services do not provide rehabilitation. They are centres of trauma.”
The Department of Social Development also shared this view when it publicly acknowledged that substance not be solved by our police service, but rather with the aid of social workers, education, and treatment.
Gareth’s experience of the arrest in 2012 gave the argument of equality, a directive which Gareth has always felt was the ‘Pandora’s box’ that government is scared to open. He firmly believes that cannabis poses an economic risk to substances like tobacco and alcohol which seem to hold a monopoly on civil society. The versatility of cannabis is set to affect the pharmaceutical and energy industry, and it comes as no surprise to learn that a large majority of our politicians hold key stakes within these ‘golden goose’ sectors of our economy.
Simply put, there is nothing in law or reason that dictates that cannabis would not be able to give the tobacco and alcohol industry a run for their money. Gareth firmly stated that these two sectors are lucrative earners and have enjoyed privileged monopoly for over 100 years. This competitive advantage has fundamentally been pocketed by a select few, and the looming truth of what cannabis can do for our economy has literally reverberated through the alter of these social laments.
“Hence we now have a Constitutional Court judgment that says adult individuals are permitted to cultivate and use cannabis, however they are legally not allowed to purchase seed,” Gareth explained. “The reality of the situation is that very few people have mother plants, or male and female plants that they can use to get seed. That is what millions of people in our country now face
Controversy and concern in regard to The Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill and The National Cannabis Master Plan is raging and Gareth has voiced great discontent about the nature and social impacts of these cruel and inhumane foreign ideologies.
“Imposing foreign strategies and plans on our domestic situation is completely counter-productive. What we need is a cannabis plan for South Africa that is developed by South Africans.”
What we need is a cannabis plan for South Africa that is developed by South Africans.
He also believes that The Cannabis Master Plan is unsustainable as government has made no provision for recreational cannabis, and that the plans they do have available, are for medical and industrial cannabis, which they interpret as hemp.
This translates into government importing non-endemic strains which will cost the taxpayer, and seriously undermine the ability of the cannabis industry to remain sustainable. Increased cost in producing end-user cannabis products will result in government simply doing what it has always done.
Gareth stands true to his belief that we need to focus our efforts on what this country has in terms of landrace strains and the perfect growing conditions. He has echoed this pertinent philosophy in a sound principal of domestic investments rather than a blind sheep approach which endeavours to simply copy and paste (from Canada) an unrealistic and obscure set of control mechanisms within our governance.
“The sad thing is government is in a position to provide a cannabis blueprint which could be the envy of the world. They simply lack the courage and the balls to do that.”
This affirms his belief that what government proposes is not a Cannabis Master Plan, but definitely ‘The Cannabis Master’s Plan’. “The notion of masters and servants are not compatible with a constitutional democracy.”
His aim is for this to be an opportunity for government to develop a new social pact with the people, historically those who have been far removed from the everyday reality.
“The reason why The Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill was stillborn was because of a gross inadequacy of public participation in the founding of that bill.”
Gareth added that they had waited 18 months after the ruling of 18 September 2018, for government to extend an invitation to formulate a meeting constructed around dialogue that speaks of a new consult.
“However, what we received was a simple duplicated edit of some foreign legislations which the government is now trying to force on South Africans, this is unjust and immoral in its very nature.”
By removing obstacles which have been put in place through incompetent government discourse, Gareth believes we could action the existing commerce of cannabis infrastructures which already exist within our country with immediate effect.
“Government needs to move out of its own way, and out of the people’s way, because the people have a plan.”
It has been 36 years since he took his first puff of ganja, and he has been a true advocate for both human and cannabis rights every step of the way. Now, as things stand in 2021, he is also working as part of a team that has been tasked with formulating a regulatory framework for indigenous medicines, including cannabis. He also acts in his capacity as attorney for those individuals who require legal assistance.
The founding principles set at a young age, through his interests in reggae music and social inequalities, have been a source of inspiration and arguably an almost prophetic transcendence.
Above and beyond his many achievements, Gareth Prince has served as a prophetic influence and bridge between the indigenous people, and a system that has failed to correct its wake of destruction. In a society of vague truth, it is not common to find those that have stood unwavering in their convictions, like the landrace strains of Mother Africa. He is silent, yet strong in purpose and action.
We honour and salute you, Ras Gareth Prince.
“Everyone is crying out for peace… I need equal rights and justice!” – Peter Tosh