Views on cannabis in South Africa are changing slowly but surely, and a recent groundbreaking judgment will further transform the way cannabis is seen in our society. A judge has now officially decriminalised the possession and use of cannabis by children in SA.

Gauteng High Court Judge Ingrid Opperman has declared sections of the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act unconstitutional. Specifically, she has dubbed the criminalisation of the use and possession of cannabis by children invalid.

Opperman placed a moratorium on the prosecution or arrest of children in relation to cannabis, but parts of the Act still await suspension from the Constitutional Court.

While the judge decriminalised possession and use of cannabis by children, she stressed that this does not mean people could not make use of a civil process to help children with issues related to cannabis dependency or abuse.

The move was made in order to ensure children stayed out of the criminal justice system but does not mean that the court condones use or possession of cannabis by children, and it goes without saying that selling cannabis to a child, or any person for that matter, remains illegal.

The existing Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act was challenged due to a case where children found using cannabis were arrested and failed to comply with an order to undergo certain programmes. They were then forced to stay at a youth care centre operated by the African Global Operations, a company that provides prison services.

During this case, the question arose as to whether children should be serving time or paying the cost for cannabis use and possession when the laws on private use of cannabis have recently been relaxed.

According to the Centre for Child Law, a more suitable approach would be to apply the laws of the Children’s Act or the Prevention of and Treatment for Substance Abuse Act. This would shift the focus from a criminal offence to treating children for drug dependency. Instead of punishment or incarceration, they would be guided and helped.

It is clear that arresting children for cannabis use has a huge negative affect on them and according to the court, a new approach is needed to foster drug use awareness and support for dependency rather than treating children like criminals.

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