If cannabis is as harmful as it is purported to be there should be tens of millions of deaths a year, but there is no evidence to show that is the case, Rastafarian Garreth Prince argued in a landmark case in the High Court in Western Cape on Tuesday.
He said millions of people die as a result of tobacco and alcohol use, but there has been nothing to show a link between death and cannabis use.
"What we are asking for is not just a limited exemption to Rastafarians on religious grounds. We are saying that cannabis should be treated like alcohol and cigarettes," submitted Prince.
Prince was not allowed to register as a lawyer due to a student dagga conviction and lost a Constitutional Court application to have dagga declared legal for religious use.
He has been working as a legal adviser since that case 18 years ago, and is representing himself and 18 other plaintiffs, as is Dagga Party leader Jeremy Acton.
The application is not specific to a particular purpose such as religious or medical use, but for the use of anybody who chooses to use it.
The plaintiffs were arrested for various dagga-related infractions. Prince for example, is accused of trafficking because he grows his own dagga at home.
Prince and Acton are arguing that the Criminal Prohibition of Dagga Act (sections 4b and 5c), read with certain sections of Part III of Schedule 2 of the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act, are unconstitutional.
Those sections make it a crime to possess a drug, unless it is for a variety of medical reasons.
The Drugs and Trafficking Act defines what constitutes a drug.
Prince submitted that clauses of the Act relating to dagga are unconstitutional because they prejudice against people who choose to use cannabis, known as dagga in South Africa, and take away their choice to use it.
Prince said dagga was outlawed in South Africa in the 1920s and wondered if it was done to act specifically against black people.
To exclamations of "fire" from the public gallery packed with Rastafarians when he made a point, Prince said black people were mere objects in those days.
The government did not care about them and seemed more concerned with protecting the moral health and safety of white people.
Dagga was regarded in those times as a substance that made white women want to have sex, he continued.
"There is absolutely no evidence to say that cannabis is a direct cause of anything," submitted Prince.
"Sugar, caffeine, asprin, kill thousands every year, but they do not criminalise them."
Society's stance on drugs 'ambivalent'
Asked by Judge Nolwazi Boqwana for his views on the harm caused by drugs such as tik, Mandrax and heroin, and whether use of these should also be allowed, Prince said the argument is not to strike down all drug laws.
He said that Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2002 and they have been able to bring the prison population down.
He said he was not sure if society was ready in South Africa for his argument to go as far as unbanning all drugs, adding that is a discussion for Parliament.
"In my personal opinion, our society's stance on drugs is very ambivalent," he said.
Over 500 000 people had been arrested over the past two years for dagga, and cannabis users are being housed in overcrowded prisons using money that could be spent on social needs.
He explained that there are scientific tests that can be used to determine whether or not the use of dagga is linked to a crime, in the same way that drunk drivers have to go for alcohol tests.
"Drug abuse is a legitimate problem in our society, but as I have said in my papers, cannabis users do not exacerbate that," he said.
The case continues.