In August 2010, the Johannesburg-area home of Julian “Jules” Stobbs and Myrtle Clark was raided shortly after midnight by the South African Police Services (SAPS) Drug Squad in search of a “cannabis lab.”
“When they find cannabis plants under lights it is considered a ‘lab’ and is much worse than having plants in your garden,” Clark says. The SAPS Drug Squad is similar to an American SWAT team and has been increasingly used in drug law enforcement in the small African country.
“They were very aggressive,” says Stobbs, “We wound them up a lot by not doing anything, we didn’t answer questions and we did not resist.”
He says in the grand scheme of things they weren’t treated as terribly as they could have been, but their house was trashed.
“It just feels dirty,” Stobbs says.
An indoor garden was not found, only a small stash for personal recreational use. Stobbs and Clark were charged with possession and dealing, the dealing charge was dropped three months later. The current penalties in South Africa for marijuana possession and dealing are steep, as the plant is across-the-board illegal in the country.
Their case soon became so high profile the couple has largely become the face of the legalization movement in South Africa and have been ramping up their efforts to reclassify the use of cannabis as a basic human right in the small country.
“Our inboxes are full of people who just get busted for small amounts and are harassed, cavity searched… all sorts of horrible stuff. It is quite draconian around here still. We have a lot of work to do,” says Stobbs.
Stobbs and Clark are now suing the South African government, their primary argument being that cannabis prohibition violates the human rights laid out by South Africa’s 20-year-old constitution.
They say that not only are the cannabis prohibition policies racist and tied to Apartheid, but that penalties for possession, use and manufacturing can be paid off. The rich can afford to challenge charges lobbed against them while the poor end up in prison.
“Its not about the cannabis anymore, it’s a human rights issue. That is why we are suing the government,” Clark says.
Clark and Stobbs have been dubbed “The Dagga Couple” by South African press, an identity they have used to educated South Africans and the world about the history of the substance in South Africa. Their Youtube video briefly laying out the history of cannabis, “dagga” in the country and the root of current policies has gone viral online.
“We have turned it around from being the defendants to being the plaintiffs,” Clark says.
Their next court date is March 2015, where the South African constitutional court will determine whether or not the challenge should be heard. From there they hope to prove in court that cannabis prohibition laws are a violation of human rights and therefore unconstitutional.
South Africa has a constitutional democracy, meaning its constitution overrides any international agreements.
“It is considered one of the most liberal constitutions in the world,” says Clark.
“It’s not just about cannabis, it’s about cognitive liberty,” says Clark.
The Dagga Couple also says that prohibition laws in South Africa are rooted in racism. Even their choice to use the word “dagga” a word used to malign the plant in South African history is controversial and meant to evoke memories of Apartheid.
“[The laws] have been an excuse to incarcerate thousands of Black youth in South Africa,” says Clark.
“People despise the word,” says Stobbs.
Stobbs and Clark argue that the freedom to use dagga is akin to freedom of speech or freedom of movement, rights guaranteed in the South African constitution in response to the human rights violations of Apartheid. They are now launching a non-profit organization, Fields of Green for All to propel the cause in South Africa and promote the case. They say they do not want to exclusively legalize medical marijuana like many states in the U.S. have done, but would prefer to legalize the plant across the board.
“[This] is about social activism, championing the rights of the recreational user. We believe all use of marijuana is medical, there isn’t a difference,” Clark says, “It’s about freedom for everyone, [the right to use dagga] needs to apply to all 48 million South Africans.”
“The only way we are going to fail is if we don’t have the money,” says Stobbs, “But that is the situation when you are trying to fight Goliath.”